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.”

Pseudo-carceral spaces? Replica prison cells

The ‘Choice’  Bus is making its way to middle schools in San Antonio, bringing a message about ‘the importance of education and the consequences of wrong choices’  to school children. In part, the message is conveyed through the replica prison cell installed at the back of the yellow school bus. The bunk bed, toilet and sink were donated from a prison in Alabama, and the idea is that children will find the cell off-putting enough to discourage them from offending. A short video here shows the bus, the cell and reactions of visiting children. There are numerous other examples, of  ‘deterrents’ of this kind, including this from North Wales, UK.

As recent posts show, I’m interested in challenging the inside/outside binary of the prison, and I find the creation of replica cells, and the uses to which they are put, fascinating. In these examples the message is about the powerlessness of incarceration; the lack of choice which derives from making the ‘wrong’ choice. The communication of this message through the vicarious cell experience, of course, assumes that imprisonment is in some way a deterrent to crime – itself a highly contested viewpoint…

Elsewhere, though, the creation of such pseudo-carceral spaces outside the prison, in which ‘free’ individuals experience incarceration vicariously, carries different intentions.

In the UK, for example, the Foyer of the Royal Festival Hall in London was recently the venue for the ‘Go to Jail’ exhibition, run by Rideout, a UK creative organisation working within the field of criminal justice. Visitors could enter the cell to inspect living conditions, and chat to ‘prisoners’ ‘confined’ to the cell about life inside. After visiting, there was a digital consultation about setting prisoners’ tariffs and cell facilities. Rather than explicitly to deter visitors from offending, the aim in offering a transient experience of incarceration, was to encourage them to reflect on prison conditions and the rehabilitation of inmates.

The construction and display of a replica cell is also a tactic frequently deployed by pressure groups to draw attention to particular penal regimes, for example this replica Cuban prison cell in Madrid, and this replica cell drawing attention to political prisoners in Burma.

In two other exhibitions, replica cells are a vehicle for different messages, about prisoners’ agency within and beyond carceral space:

In “The House That Herman Built” a full-scale wooden model of Herman Wallace’s cell is contrasted with detailed plans of his dream home, allowing his imagination to traverse the prison wall.

In Prisoners Interventions a replica prison cell is used to give visitors to an exhibition of prisoners’ inventiveness and ingenuity ‘a physical and psychological understanding’ of the spaces they inhabit, and a context for the design and manufacture of their inventions. The exhibition (and a later book), a collaboration between incarcerated prisoner Angelo and ‘Temporary Services’, showcases recreations of objects made by prisoners to address the needs of their restrictive environment, from sex dolls to salt and pepper shakers, to chess pieces. In Angelo’s words, “Even the simplest of innovations presents unusual challenges, not just to make an object but in some instances to create the tools to make it and find the materials to make it from. The prison environment is designed and administered for the purpose of suppressing such inventiveness. Officially, the devices described here are considered contraband, subject to confiscation in routine cell searches. But inmates are resilient if nothing else—what’s taken today will be remade by tomorrow, and the cycle goes on and on.”

While replica cells enable different messages to be communicated and explored, this pseudo-carceral space itself awaits investigation. Different from the ‘transcarceral’ spaces discussed by Allspach (2010), we might consider them transient carceral landscapes, offering a simulacrum of the prison for the spectatorship of onlookers. What is clear, though, is that as Herman Wallace and Angelo have shown through their collaborations, the involvement of prisoners in creating replica cells shows that they can do more than act as a threatening ‘deterrent’. They can stimulate debate about prison conditions, and the purpose of incarceration, and also about the agency of prisoners in these spaces, and the unexpected and ingenious ways in which they engage with and beyond them.

Prisons and prisoner behaviour – space and affect

“Very little is understood and appreciated of the behavioral influence of environmental factors on prisoners and staff. It would be difficult to find a correctional official, warden, superintendent, or line officer that does not agree that a facility’s architectural design has a corresponding influence on prisoner behavior.” (Austin 2003, 5)

I keep coming back to this passage of text from James Austin’s report for the US Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons, wondering why, and thinking that this is exactly the kind of question that carceral geography is well placed to address.

In today’s Guardian magazine, Amelia Gentleman’s piece on Halden, the world’s ‘most humane prison’ raises this question again, although in an utterly different penal regime – the decarcerative setting of Norway rather than the hyperincarcerative context of the US. One of Norway’s highest security institutions, Halden apparently smells of coffee, cells have flat screen TVs and fluffy towels, and prisoners look out over wooded landscapes within the prison grounds. Doors don’t slam shut and prisoners are out of their cells for most of the day. The prison’s architects were set a challenge of designing a space that was ‘light and positive’, and ‘shouldn’t look like a prison’. The principle, given that in Norway the maximum sentence is 21 years and all prisoners are expected to return to the world outside, was that ‘life behind the walls should be as much like life outside the walls as possible.’ As the prison governor discussed, the spatial context is just as important as the rehabilitative regime:

“Everyone who is imprisoned inside Norwegian prisons will be released… everyone… will go back to society. We look at what kind of neighbour you want to have when they come out. If you stay in a box for a few years, then you are not a good person when you come out… We don’t think about revenge in the Norwegian prison system. We have much more focus on rehabilitation. It is a long time since we had fights between inmates. It is this building that makes softer people.” (my emphasis)

Although governor Are Høidal is as convinced of the effect of the building on prisoners’ behaviour as are the correctional officers in James Austin’s report, little is known about how this effect takes place. Some fascinating work within criminology sheds some light on prison architecture, notably Michael Fiddler’s 2011 papers on the phantasmagoric prison, and the prison’s Gothic shadow, but perhaps of greatest interest to carceral geographers is Philip Hancock and Yvonne Jewkes’s recent paper ‘Architectures of incarceration; The spatial pains of imprisonment’ which calls into question the ‘enlightened humanism’ of new generation prisons like Halden, and identifies some ‘pains of imprisonment’ which arise specifically in these contexts, pointing out that the intentions of architectural design can also be lost in everyday practice. They conclude by raising questions about the future of prison architecture and design, and also ‘for the role and trajectory of… research… and particularly for our need to understand the lived experience of such spaces for all those required to inhabit them’ (p627, my emphasis).

Understanding the lived experience of spaces is, of course, at the heart of geographical enquiry. Space is recognised by geographers as more than the surface where social practices take place. As Adey (2008, 440) argues, ‘specific spatial structures… can work to organise affect to have certain effects’. Designers of spaces consider ‘seductive spatiality’ (Rose et al 2010, 347) or ‘ambient power’ (Allen 2006, 445) through which to direct or shape human behaviour within these spaces. Essentially, geographers understand that space ‘matters’, and can affect the ways people act within it.

Although almost a decade has passed since Austin noted that “There are few, if any, studies that have assessed the impact of prison architecture on prisoner behavior” (2003, 6), perhaps dialogue between criminologists and carceral geographers will go some way towards furthering our understanding of the lived experience of carceral space. And in so doing, carceral geography could address critics of geographies of affect and emotion, who argue that such studies should address more topics of relevance, and that geographers of affect should ‘seek out projects and avenues that offer grounds for critical and political thought at the same time that they open the door for participation in efforts to make positive social and political change’ (Woodward & Lea 2010, 170).

“I can make about four steps forward before I touch the door” The embodiment of incarceration.

Incarceration is the confinement of the physical body – although the imagination may travel beyond the prison cell and the prison wall, the act of imprisonment seeks to confine the body within demarcated space. But what happens to bodies treated in this way, and to the individuals who inhabit them?

Yesterday, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox marked the forty year anniversary of their solitary confinement in Louisiana’s notorious Angola jail. As Ed Pilkington notes in The Guardian, both have spent ’23 hours of every one of the past 14,610 days locked in their single-occupancy 9ft-by-6ft cells’. Contact with the world outside the windowless room is limited to the occasional visit and telephone call, “exercise” three times a week in a caged concrete yard, and letters that are opened and read by prison guards.

In a new documentary film, “Herman’s House“, directed by Angad Bhalla and produced by Lisa Valencia-Svensson, (to shown at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival on April 27), Wallace both describes his imprisonment:(“Being in a cage for such an extended period of time, it has its downfalls. You may not feel it, you may not know it, you may think you’re OK, and you’re just perfunctory about it.”) and allows his imagination to traverse the prison wall to co-create an art installation featuring detailed plans of his “dream home”.

In additional recordings, he vividly evokes the effect of this corporeal confinement:

“Every time I stand up from the bed I could hit my hips on the table, it’s that close. As far as moving about – there is no movement. I suffer from arthritis that has come about because of being in the cell.”

“If I turn an about-face, I’m going to bump into something. I’m used to it, and that’s one of the bad things about it.”

Robert King, the third of the “Angola 3”, whose conviction was overturned and who was released in 2001, echoes the effects of close confinement

“I was in a six-by-nine cell for 29 years and I know what it did to me – it shunk the brain, it shrunk the individual. You become acclimatised to small distances.”

Amnesty International delivered a petition for the two men’s release from solitary to the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge on the date of the anniversary, and the 40 year anniversary has drawn greater attention to the practice of solitary confinement in the US, not least because of the severe and debilitating effects of this kind of incarceration on body and mind.

For carceral geography, the effect, or affect, of solitary confinement on the incarcerated is a direct example of the influence of space on behaviour. Space is, after all, is not just a passive backdrop to social practice; it has ‘seductive spatiality’ (Rose et al 2010, 347) and ‘ambient power’ (Allen 2006, 445)  to affect how those encountering it act, both consciously and subconsciously. Contemporary human geography’s concern for the corporeal and the embodied resonates with the work of criminologist Azrini Wahidin, and her work on the corporeal effects of imprisonment, with prisoners’ bodies remade and reinscribed in the penal context.

Carceral geography has the opportunity to deploy geographies of affect, emotion and embodiment to enhance understandings of the effects of solitary confinement, and to do so in a way which contributes to efforts to make positive social and political change.

Abandoned or converted prisons – transient carceral landscapes

Joliet prison, owned by the state of Illinois, US, closed in 2002, and although it has since been used as a filmset by TV and movie crews, it lacks a long term future plan.  With a large bill for renovation, and no immediate source of funding, as Bob Okon writes, there will be ‘no fast redevelopment’ at Joliet.

Joliet is an example of the dilemma facing those involved in dealing with prison buildings once they reach the end of their penal function, and the conversion, adaptation or destruction of these sites is often a contentious and highly politicised process. Geographers researching memory and landscape have investigated some of these sites.

Carolyn Strange and Michaela Kempa’s work on Alcatraz, for example, identifies this defunct prison, now converted into a museum and heritage site, as a popular tourist experience, and they consider the nature of  ‘dark tourism’ at Alcatraz  in terms of memory management. In contrast, Brian Graham and Sara McDowell focus on Long Kesh/Maze prison in Northern Ireland, one of the key heritage sites of the Northern Ireland conflict/Troubles, and site of contestation between various stakeholders in the peace process. Concluding that only one stakeholder group has a ‘clearly defined sense of the heritage value of the Maze and an understanding as to how the site might be appropriated and exploited as an iconic place for remembering, contestation and resistance’, they anticipate the problematic future of the site (initially cleared, to be the site of an EU-funded Peace Building and Conflict Resolution facility but more recently sold to the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society to accommodate an agricultural show and centre of excellence).

The commercial exploitation of former prisons is widespread, either deploying the prison’s own heritage, as in the case of Patarei prison in Tallinn, Estonia, or Kilmainham jail in Dublin, Ireland, or converting it for profitable use, as in the case of the Malmaison hotel in Oxford, UK or Katajanokka hotel in Helsinki, Finland.

Relatively little geographical scholarship has tracked such conversions, although Chin-Ee Ong, Claudio Minca and James Sidaway’s forthcoming paper at the RGS-IBG this July will do so. The Empire and its Hotel: The Changing Biopolitics of Hotel Lloyd, Amsterdam, The Netherlands traces the early days of the hotel’s beginnings as a node for housing immigrants,  to its ‘carceral’ phase as an adult prison and juvenile detention centre, to its contemporary use as a hotel and cultural embassy for a mobile travelling society. The authors interrogate the discursive and spatial practices for producing disciplined subjects and bodies in the refugees, prisoners and, in a ‘punitive turn’, the disciplining of contemporary tourists and modern-day tourism workers.