Communities

Prison Map Shows Unsettling Sprawl of America’s Penitentiary System

by Caroline Pham

January 14, 2015
Photo courtesy Prison Map

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States “locks up more people, per capita, than any other nation,” with more than 2.4 million people incarcerated, effectively making America the penitentiary capital of the world.

Josh Begley, an interactive telecommunications graduate student at New York University, got to thinking about mass incarceration while in a data visualization class, and how tired he was of the usual spread of data and graphs used to showcase this issue. He wondered: “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?

And so he decided to display the prison sprawl in a different way: “mapping” it through satellite photography of all 4,916 prison facilities in the United States on a website—Prison Map. Using Google Maps and code he tailored himself, Begley utilized coordinates of all the correctional institutions supplied by Prisoners of the Census, to take and pull in aerial shots of each facility to the site.

The result is visually astonishing and unsettling. Begley allows the overwhelming volume of photographs speak for itself, each shot stacked in a compact grid beneath one daunting question: “What does the geography of incarceration in the United States look like?” 

Only 700 of the best photos were included on the homepage (14 percent of the total images he’s amassed), with the entirety displayed here.

Prison Map will be included in the “Prison Obscura” exhibition organized by PrisonPhotography.org’s Pete Brook which will explore the prison industrial complex and opens in February at New York’s Parson’s New School for Design.

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Prison Map Shows Unsettling Sprawl of America’s Penitentiary System