Prison Map: The Geography of Incarceration in the United States

Many thanks to Shaul Cohen for the recommendation of Josh Begley’s Prison Map website via Emily Badger’s piece on ‘The Stunning Geography of Incarceration’.

Josh Begley is a Masters student in Interactive Telecommunications at New York University, and the Prison Map website is part of a class project. He presents satellite images of American penitentiaries, rather than the ubiquitous statistics of mass incarceration, to highlight the sheer volume of these facilities and the resources which go into constructing places to ‘warehouse’ people.

For Begley, the take-home message is about space, not only in relation to the distribution of prisons, and the housing of urban prisoners in rural locations, (and their counting in the census where they are incarcerated, not where they are from), but also in the spaces of imprisonment themselves, viewed from above.

“The first time I was really able to look at all of these images, the thing that jumped out at me the most was that the one commonality among almost all of these prisons was that there was a baseball field there. And the baseball field mimicked the form about these buildings as well. There was something very American about it when I first saw it.”

Satellite images of prisons have been used in research very recently, for example in Robert G Morris and John L Worrall’s forthcoming paper which considers the relationship between prison design and inmate misconduct. Using aerial views, they identify ‘telegraph pole’, (several rows of parallel multistory buildings, or pavilions, connected by one or two main corridors) and ‘campus’ (freestanding buildings surrounded by a large open space, often in the shape of a rectangle) penitentiaties in Texas and analyse the relationship between these two designs and inmate misconduct, using a random sample of 2,500 inmate disciplinary histories sourced from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. They find a modest association between prison design and nonviolent misconduct, but acknowledge the drawbacks of the study, in terms of the reliance on officially reported midconduct data rather than prisoners’ insights, and the limitations of the satellite imagery in understanding the nature of prison spaces.

With prison sites often considered ‘out of sight and out of mind’, these two, very different, uses of satellite imagery remind us of the very concrete reality of carceral spaces, and invite us to consider the everyday reality of life inside of them, baseball pitches or not…

Drawing a chilling parallel between his satellite images and TV newscasting, Begley puts it like this:

“We’re used to aerial images of nation-states overseas, and we’ll see a diagram of some compound that is going to be bombed or something. But rarely do we look at these spaces in our backyard and think critically about them.”

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