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A Cartography of Incarceration in the United States

Josh Begley, "Facility 237," from the series 'Prison Map'
Josh Begley, “Facility 237,” from the series ‘Prison Map’

Incarceration in the United States is often isolated and invisible. Data artist Josh Begley has created an online Prison Map that catalogues aerial photographs of prisons, jails, and other American detention centers to give the architecture of the growing prison population a tangibility and scale.

Last week, Pete Brook featured the project at Wired, writing:

Since 1980, the US prison population has exploded from fewer than 500,000 to more than 2.2 million. That’s prompted a prison building boom, mostly in rural America. As a consequence, many of these facilities are located in small towns, deserts, and remote corners of states with lots of space. They’re out of sight, and out of mind. Prison Map reveals this vast hidden infrastructure.

Prison Map will be part of Prison Obscura at Parsons next month, an exhibition curated by Brook, himself the editor of the website Prison Photography. Focused on the unseen world of prisons, the show has previously been on view at Haverford and Scripps Colleges.

Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post reported this month that 2.3 million prisoners were incarcerated in the US, according to the 2010 census, but we “tend to focus less on where we’re putting all those people.” Begley used a coded script run through the Google Maps API based on coordinates from the Correctional Facility Locator to image 5,300 sites. We overall have little idea what prisons — frequently out in the middle of nowhere or surrounded by impenetrable fences — look like, even if statistically it’s likely that more and more of us know someone who’s incarcerated.

Like Tings Chak, whose Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention visualizes the unseen migrant detention centers of Canada, Begley is interested in the cartography of this clandestine world. As he asks on Prison Map: “What does it mean to have 5,000 or 6,000 people locked up in the same place? What do these carceral spaces look like? How do they transform (or get transformed by) the landscape around them?” The aerial photographs reveal their stern structures as a growing, sequestered sprawl against the landscape.

Josh Begley, "Facility 492," from the series 'Prison Map'
Josh Begley, “Facility 492,” from the series ‘Prison Map’
Josh Begley, "Facility 183," from the series 'Prison Map'
Josh Begley, “Facility 183,” from the series ‘Prison Map’
Josh Begley's Prison Map (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Josh Begley’s Prison Map (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
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