Mapping Carceral Geographies

Mapping Carceral Geographies


The Prison as “Everywhere”


Intermixing the imagery of bird-eye views of various penal institutions in the United States and a map of the US from 1849, this project is an attempt to visualize the concept of carceral geographies, to visualize Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s assertion that the “apparent marginality” of prisons, “is a trick of perspective, because, as every geographer knows, edges are also interfaces.”1 In Golden Gulag, Gilmore focuses on four methods of crisis that the prison works to “fix”: finance capital, land, labor, and state capacity. Golden Gulag illustrates the political-economic landscape of carcerality in the United States, illustrating how the prison is not an isolated entity, but entrenched in the construction of the State around increased surveillance, policing, and incarceration as a means of increasing power and capital under the guise of “crime and punishment.” Drawing further from Katherine McKittrick’s methodology of Black Geography, both this essay and the map work to understand how the prison, as a central part of American society, “demonstrates that ‘common-sense’ workings of modernity and citizenship are worked out, and normalized, through geographies of exclusion.”2 How is the prison a site mediated by the “construction of disposable people,” through the legacies and tangibility of enslavement, incarceration, and state violence?3 And what does this reveal about how the prison expands and reproduces beyond its literal walls?

The map includes red dots marking the locations of all prisons in the United States according to the Department of Corrections, as mapped by Unfounded Labs, a web shop based in Brooklyn, NY. By intermixing a historical period that is vital to this essay’s arguments around the social reproduction of “humanness” while rendering others “Other,” the diverse imagery of prisons, and the actual geographic placement of these institutions, this project visualizes the expansiveness of the prison beyond the singular geography of individual prisons, arguing that the entire juridical-economic-social landscape of the US is carceral space. The base map, sourced from the Library of Congress, illustrates Mexico, the British Provinces, and the states of the United States, with a focus on Westward expansion during the Gold Rush period. The map also includes the routes of US Mail Steam Packets sailing towards California, marking expansion across the Sea, as well as expansion on land during this period. Though this project has less to do with the Gold Rush, this moment of Western expansion is representative of the movement of people and the movement of borders as affected by economic opportunity. This period, arguably a canonical moment of America’s Manifest Destiny ideology, marks a time in which the US was enacting many forms of violent and genocidal economic growth which have lasting implications for the United States today. The importance of racial capitalism within constructions of carceral geography emphasizes the relationship between the base map, which represents a moment in which, on multiple fronts, the American economy was beginning and reproducing through the labor and displacement of Indigenous and Black people. The genesis of “manifest destiny” and the American Dream upon the labor and eradication of Black and Brown bodies demonstrates how racial capitalism links the practices of violence during the 1800s occurring on the American frontier, with the analysis of the racial capitalist dimension of prison expansion. 

The red dots that decorate this map are rough representations of the locations of carceral institutions in the United States, based on data released by the US Department of Corrections. The purpose of including the literal, or rather, traditional geography of prisons is to not represent the literal “everywhere” of the prison but to instead oppose the conception of prisons as geographically non-existent. In Brett Story’s book, Prison Land, Story states that one must take “an expansive view of what constitutes carceral space by uncoupling the prison from both crime and punishment in the analytic imaginary and by interrogating the less visible social relations by which carceral space both manages life and makes that life disposable.”4 Gilmore’s carceral geography reveals how the prison emerged in the late twentieth century as a response to State crisis, a mechanism of reestablishing state legitimacy through the pivoting from social services to the prison. Story expands on this, arguing that the construction of carceral space is the “very social relations and geographic practices through which the state’s capacities of containment, displacement, and dispossession are put to work for ‘racial capitalism,’ a term that acknowledges that, insofar as capitalism requires inequality to function as a system of exploitation, it has always also relied on racial categories to enshrine that inequality as natural rather than produced.”5 Therefore, the everywhereness of the prison is directly connected to its political-economic landscape, which reproduces the hierarchies of racial capitalism. 

Within the construction of the prison as “everywhere,” visualized through the aerial photographs and the literal locations of the thousands of penal institutions in the United States, the prison also reproduces the idea of the “uninhabitable” or geographic nonexistence. The process of “containment, displacement, and dispossession” that Story links to the racial capitalist construction of the prison, reveals how racial capitalism is inherently tied to the spacialization of difference and inequality. In McKittrick’s book, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, she expands upon Sylvia Wynter’s construction of the Man, which is the “ongoing social production of humanness,” which is “worked out through mapping and attempting to constitute the space of human Others as disembodied and then transparently abnormal.”6 What Wynter’s Man illustrates is the production of hierarchy as always an oppositional relationship, it “site[s] Man as a location of desire,” implying there is a landscape that is undesirable or uninhabitable.7 The space of “Man” is developed through the process of colonial and imperial domination, in which exploration of new “lands” and “landscapes” arose in tandem with the exploration of what humanness meant. In McKittrick’s exploration of Wynter’s work, she points out that “Wynter’s theoretical strategy is to trace how Man comes to represent the only viable expression of humanness,” in other words, that “Man and his human Others came to represent and produce themselves concerning each other,” during the exploration of the New World and interaction with human and geographic “Others.”8 So as “Man” came into contact with new lands, and therefore new people, whose cultures, behaviors, and societies became the basis of the human “Other,” these hierarchical standards of humanness were reflected upon the landscape itself. McKittrick labels this idea as Man2, which “reconfigured humanness by ideologically re-presenting itself as ‘world’ humanness,” becoming the underpinnings of both geographic violence, as in the removal of people from their indigenous land under the doctrine of terra nullius or land “misuse”, and the social and cultural violence, as in the creation of who is human and who is not based on the concepts of Man.9 Wynter’s emphasizes how the physical landscape is both a site of violence and a reproduction of the hierarchies which naturalize and reproduce this violence within the production of Man’s humanness in opposition to the Other. 

McKittrick places Black Geography as incomprehensible or ungeographic, locating the unlocatable as a location in itself. It is within this framework that the prison is both everywhere and nowhere, in the sense that its very purpose is to disappear the Other. As McKittrick states, looking beyond margins works to “‘deconstruct’ or denaturalize categories such as ‘race’” while also “envisioning what is beyond the hierarchical codes and partial human stories that have, for so long, organized our populations and the planet.”10 Carceral geography is, therefore, a practice of locating or embodying “the space of human Others” that are disembodied, and in understanding how geographies of Man are built and founded on geographies of the Other.

In Chapter 3 of Demonic Grounds, McKittrick focuses on the auction block as an economic-geographic site, “a paradoxical site of struggle, a space that articulates the tensions” which “are materialized by the very structures of slavery as they are critically encountered, then and now. This forced us to think about how to value the ways in which personhood is articulated within, and therefore destabilized by, socioeconomic confinement.”11 McKittrick’s analysis of the auction block as a geographic site in which the activities occurring “spatialize and naturalize inequality,” marks the moment of sale as both a practice of the economic and geographic.12 McKittrick identifies how personhood, or rather “humanness,” is organized in opposition to the sellability or profitability of the black subject on the geographic location of the auction block. The auction block appears as a site of social production, in which “the meanings of blackness, and race in general, are reinforced, spatially and ideologically, by the process of socioeconomic exchange.”13

Putting McKittrick’s texts in conversation with the map reveals the socio-spatial-economic-juridical process of how prisons in the United States are “worked out and normalized” through the process of rendering people disposable. The framework that McKittrick lays out in her discussion of the auction block is vital to an understanding of how prison, and prison expansion, appear in the legacy of the spatial organizations of the plantation, as “the auction block differentiates the black body by visually demarcating it and attaching discourses of dispossession and captivity to the flesh.”14 The auction block is a geographic site that exists within one temporal and spatial period: that of the moment of sale. However, what McKittrick argues is the auction block stretches beyond the boundaries of its specific place in time and space, as it organizes the ideology of humanness and liberty which are constructed in the sale and commodification of the enslaved black body. 

McKittrick demands a reorganization of how one imagines the hierarchical organizations of space, or rather, how space creates, reproduces, or organizes a hierarchy that extends beyond the physical location of the space itself. The auction block, she asserts, is not bound to its temporal or spatial placement, but rather has “intricacies and connective social processes which can, and do, impact upon multiscalar areas.”15 Using the framework of scale, McKittrick argues that the scale of the auction block, or “the social production of scale, the socio-geographic struggle over making boundaries” causes the “denaturaliz[ation of] its seemingly hierarchical, bound, self-evident, geographic organization.”16

Gilmore’s assertions around crime-and-punishment, and racialized policing as the way that prison expansion can occur, but is not the cause, arise within McKittrick’s argument around the naturalization of disposable people within systems of white supremacist economic expansion. As crises push the State towards prisons as a “fix,” the spatial organization of the plantation attaches “discourses of dispossession and captivity” to Black people, and creates categories of criminality out of the over-policing of poverty and Black communities. How is criminality the naturalization of incarcerating, or rending spatially invisible, disposable people? It is this association of scale, imagining a place as beyond its geographic boundaries by considering how it produces or reinforces “inherent” truths, where McKittricks’ methodology of Black Geography lays the groundwork for investigation of the naturalization of the prison within the American landscape. 

Denise Ferreira Da Silva explores naturalization, or the “arrangement of the Colonial, the Racial, the Juridical (the State and Cisheteropatriarchy), and Capital at work in the global present” within the book Unpayable Debt, by tracking how “blackness records the juridical and economic ‘relation’ that has been crucial in the assembling of state and capital.”17 Race, da Silva argues, is central to how concepts of liberty are the economic and juridical right to enact violence against Black bodies, as demonstrated through the analysis of an owner/property relationship.18 Reading da Silva stretches McKittrick’s arguments around scale and the auction block to include how the hierarchies of enslavement determine how the American conception of liberty is reproduced through relationships of ownership, which defines “owning” someone as the right to enact violence. State and capital are arranged by rights to ownership, and therefore, rights to violence against racialized bodies exist under the guise of liberty: it is an inherent and core tenant of how the socio-spatial-economic-juridicial American system operates.

My use of aerial pictures of American prisons collaged within and beyond the boundaries of the United States, aims to represent the extension of the prison, whose landscape is more expansive than individual prisons’ physical borders. This part of the maps works to interlock the twenty-first century prison with McKittrick’s analysis of the auction block, asserting that the production of truth within a spatial-temporal period, which extends beyond itself, is crucial to understanding how the prison operates beyond its borders. What McKittrick reveals is that “the point of sale corresponded with the objectification of the landscape and particular humans in exchange for profit; or, the auction block and the black subject are simultaneously abstracted from humanness.”19 It is the creation of hierarchical categorization through the delineation of a landscape or space as “abstracted from humanness,” which is connected to how the contemporary prison is constructed as a site of human otherness, supported by the ideology of punishment.

Hailing back to Story’s association of prison expansion with the reproduction of racial capitalism and da Silva’s conception of liberty and violence, Rinaldo Walcott’s On Property argues that the enduring relationship between property, violence, and incarceration persists. As Walcott states, the prison is a place “where Black out-of-placeness is a signal of the long and enduring history of Black subjection. And in a post-slavery world, these are places where the unspoken attitudinal practices of slavery, fully born from the plantation’s womb, still fashion social relations.”20 The expansion of prisons, under the logic of carceral geography, cannot be severed from how the social relations of the plantation are reproduced in the creation of “disposable people” and Black “out-of-placeness.” Walcott argues that, like the hierarchical organization of space, the lasting social relations are related to how racial capitalism produces a perception of poverty as criminality. As Story states, “carceral space… contributes to the construction of disposable people in our social worlds. The production of the ‘criminal’ as a racialized category of so-called indisputable depravity provides powerful legitimizing cover for the making of surplus populations and socially differentiating them.”21 Incarceration is naturalized by the interpretation of the prison as vital, made possible by the interpretation of the prisoner as criminal.

The mapping of carceral geographies works to “rehistoriciz[e] prisons as social, rather than natural, constructions, hewed to a set of mutable social relations and contestable political imperatives,” that reveal how prisons are engineered into our societies.22 Prison is, therefore, not on the margins, but in the very center of how American society continues to reproduce itself based upon the foundations of racial capitalism and the creation of a disposable people. The “disposability” of people manufactured by the carceral system is the foundation of imagining an abolitionist society, as it requires us to think about how disposability is created, not natural. This map works to visualize the expansiveness of these sometimes unseen social “myths,” in which the naturalization of the prison produces the invisibility of its presence around us. Therefore, to visualize the abolitionist imagination is a matter of disarticulating the invisibility of these systems by rendering them geographic or, by intertwining the visuals of the prison itself with the legacies of enslavement, colonialism, and displacement that sit at the foundation of carceral geographies. Abolition is a matter of reorienting or reorganizing social relationships beyond the structures of racial capitalism, which reveals how these “spaces of Otherness are ‘palpitating with life.”23

  1. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California (University of California Press, 2007), 11.
  2. Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods, Black Geographies and the Politics of Place (Between the Lines, 2007), 6.
  3. Brett Story, Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power across Neoliberal America (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 11.
  4. Ibid., 7.
  5. Ibid., 6.
  6. Katherine McKittrick, Demonic grounds: Black women and the cartographies of struggle (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 126, 128.
  7. Ibid., 126.
  8. Ibid., 124.
  9. Ibid., 126.
  10. Ibid., 135.
  11. Ibid., 84.
  12. Ibid., 73.
  13. Ibid., 74.
  14. Ibid., 74.
  15. Ibid., 83.
  16. Ibid., 74.
  17. Denise Ferreira da Silva, Unpayable debt (Sternberg Press, 2022), 17, 28.
  18. Ibid., 79.
  19. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, 71.
  20. Rinaldo Walcott, On property (Biblioasis, 2021), 15.
  21. Story, Prison Land, 11.
  22. Ibid., 26.
  23. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, 133.
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