Photos

The Stunning Geography of Incarceration

America has more than 5,000 prisons. This is what they look like on our landscape.

Image
Prison Map

There are 5,393 carceral facilities in the United States, places where people are held in local jails, state prisons, federal corrections facilities, immigration detention centers – “anywhere where an individual can be sort of confined and locked up,” explains Josh Begley, “and, in some of the bigger instances, warehoused in one place.”

Begley is a master’s student in the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University. He wanted to graphically represent what all of this means, to communicate not just the sheer quantity of prisons in America (a number that has been booming for decades), but their volume on our landscape. As part of a class project, he created the oddly beautiful website Prison Map, which offers a mashed-up birds-eye view of all of these places, taken from Google Satellite images.

“A lot of times we’ll just use numbers to talk about this idea of mass incarceration,” Begley says, “and I thought that there maybe was something powerful about using no numbers, no words and just having the images.”

One group in particular, the Prison Policy Initiative, and its project Prisoners of the Census, has done much of the work of cataloging all of these facilities and their geographic locations. By translating that data into an almost artistic rendering, Begley’s project makes visible an element of our communities that’s seldom seen. Some of the most striking images are those of rural prisons, which project intricate patterns onto otherwise empty landscapes.

These rural prisons often house urban prisoners, in the process transforming both the communities where these facilities are located and the neighborhoods from which their inmates came. This population shift has serious consequences for urban, often minority communities, in part because the Census has long counted prisoners where they’re locked up, not where they’re from, costing inner-city communities resources and political capital (this practice, often called “prison-based gerrymandering,” began to gain greater attention during the 2010 Census).

Begley’s images capture the massive scale of this entire industry and the land that we devote to it (America has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but houses a quarter of the world’s prisoners). His website, in fact, includes only about 14 percent of all of the prisons he’s captured (each one is scaled to the same size).

“The takeaway, at least for me, is really about this notion of space,” he says. “The amount of sheer materials that have had to go into building these buildings for the purposes of essentially warehousing people is really impossible for me to wrap my head around. 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.”

Begley, who grew up in California near San Quentin, the state’s oldest prison, acknowledges that these forms appear to him as simultaneously beautiful and horrific.

“The first time I was really able to look at all of these images,” he says, “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.”

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.