The Virtual Reality of Imprisonment: The Impact of Social Media on Prisoner Agency and Prison Structure in Russian Prisons

22 Pages Posted: 2 Feb 2018 Last revised: 21 May 2018

See all articles by Laura Piacentini

Laura Piacentini

University of Strathclyde - School of Law

Elena Katz

University of Oxford

Date Written: February 2, 2018


English Abstract: Prison agencies around the world are reporting a rise in the use of illicit communication devices in prison. Nevertheless, there have been no criminological studies examining prisoners’ online behavior. Using Russia as a case study, this paper reports findings from new research on prisoners’ illicit internet use and the effects on prisoner agency and prison structure. Our main finding is that Russian penality sits at the nexus of two processes. First, penality is de-institutionalised whereby the prison, discursively speaking, is no longer fixed to a built form. Second, penality is reflexively re-territorialised by placing prisoner agency onto a third space. The paper presents a new conceptual framework of prisoners as absent, which reveals Russian penality as culturally contingent and politically resilient. The interplay between de-institutionalisation and re-territorialisation has produced a new penal imaginary - a carceral motif for the twenty first century - in the form of a virtual world.

Spanish Abstract: Con Rusia como estudio de caso, este artículo informa acerca de los hallazgos de nuevas investigaciones sobre el uso ilícito de Internet por parte de los reclusos, y de los efectos sobre la agencia de los reclusos y sobre la estructura de la prisión. Nuestro principal hallazgo es que las prisiones de Rusia son el punto de encuentro de dos procesos: primero, la vida en prisión se desinstitucionaliza, de modo que la prisión, en sentido discursivo, ya no está vinculada a una edificación; segundo, la existencia carcelaria se reterritorializa de forma reflexiva, a través de la traslación de la agencia del prisionero a un tercer espacio. El artículo presenta un marco conceptual nuevo de prisioneros en ausencia, que revela que la vida carcelaria de Rusia es culturalmente contingente y políticamente resiliente. La interrelación entre desinstitucionalización y reterritorialización ha producido un nuevo imaginario carcelario - un motivo carcelario para el siglo XXI - en forma de mundo virtual.

Keywords: Russia, prisoners, agency, social media, structure, absentism, Rusia, reclusos, agencia, redes sociales, estructura, ausencia

Suggested Citation

Piacentini, Laura and Katz, Elena, The Virtual Reality of Imprisonment: The Impact of Social Media on Prisoner Agency and Prison Structure in Russian Prisons (February 2, 2018). Oñati Socio-Legal Series, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2018. Available at SSRN:

Laura Piacentini (Contact Author)

University of Strathclyde - School of Law ( email )

Graham Hills Building
50 George Street
Glasgow, G1 1QE
United Kingdom

Elena Katz

University of Oxford

Mansfield Road
Oxford, OX1 4AU
United Kingdom

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