• Article

`Papa's house': The prison as domestic and social satellite

Concerned about their partners' potential desensitization to carceral existence and their ensuing loss of ability to function outside of the penitentiary walls, women whose husbands, fiancés, or boyfriends are incarcerated attempt to involve their loved one in personal and family life by relocating various everyday activities into the prison visiting room. As kinship gatherings, family celebrations, and romance are conducted behind bars, the prison becomes `Papa's house', an alternative site for the performance of `private' behavior. This article draws upon intensive field observations in the visitor-waiting area of California's San Quentin State Prison and in-depth interviews with 50 women whose partners are incarcerated to examine the contradictory emotional and institutional processes that complicate and reshape relationships during periods of incarceration and thereby profoundly transform the nature of precisely what visitation is meant to maintain, namely family ties. The depiction of three ostensibly intimate occurrences - commensality, weddings, and spending the night together - shows that their importation into the correctional facility twists them according to penal criteria and establishes the penitentiary as a domestic satellite. Hence the peculiar predicament facing women battling the `institutionalization' of their mate: through their efforts to create strong inclusive bonds with their partner, they in fact partake in the paradoxical `institutionalization' of their own family life and thus extend the reach and intensity of the transformative effects of the carceral apparatus.


Comfort, M. (2002). `Papa's house': The prison as domestic and social satellite. Ethnography, 3(4), 467-499. https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138102003004017