We see a penitentiary, we see people behind bars, and we think, justice. And the pairing of those concepts is so, so glued together that we don’t think, oh, historical experiment, for example. We don’t think the prison is an experiment of the past 200 years—a very brief experiment that corresponds to the advent of capitalism and modernity.
My name is Brett Story. I’m a geographer—a human geographer—and also a filmmaker who makes documentary films. I’m also the author of Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power across Neoliberal America.
So I as an activist have been working on prison issues for a long time in various capacities. Sometimes as a media maker, sometimes as an organizer, usually from the lens of a sort of antiracist and antipoverty organizer. And when I began my PhD, it was a really interesting experience of being invited to think about institutions of state violence, like the prison system, through the lens of space. A reminder, of course, that prisons are themselves a space, that they’re a building often, or an architecture that holds people in cells; that the mode of punishment is itself spatial. But that also prisons are one of these things that are really naturalized in our society. We sort of imagine punishment and criminal justice as having always relied on the prison and incarceration. And geography as a critical discipline usefully reminds us—usefully reminded me—that we have to interrogate the kinds of spatial formations that we assume are natural and inevitable and rethink them and ask questions about why they’re there, why we use these spatial forms, why we design our landscapes to inflict particular kinds of coercive activities on other people.
Out of all of this thinking emerged a project that became the film called The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, and this book. Both the conceit, but also the hunch, that animated these projects was that if we look elsewhere, if we don't actually gaze—both in terms of the actual gaze of the camera and then the sort of gaze of the researcher in the book—at the penitentiary or even the criminal justice system; if we look at other dynamics in society, other spaces in society like changing urban, downtown cores, rural hinterlands, schools, labor markets, then we might actually find information that offers a way out of the trap of thinking that prisons are necessary and inevitable state institutions. This isn’t my insight, this is the insight of other geographers, and geographers that have already been working on issues of policing and prisons, like Ruth Wilson Gilmore. But it is true that once you start asking questions about where, questions about actual spaces and places, you learn things that we didn't know before.
So, for example, if you ask a very basic question like, Where are prisons built, especially over the past 30 years, 40 years in which there's been a proliferation of prisons all over the United States and elsewhere?, the answer that comes back is that they’re built primarily in rural areas. Areas that have been hard hit economically by the vicissitudes of economic decline, industrialization, globalization. And then when you start asking why they’re built in those places, you find out a lot about the particular political economies within which prisons operate. And you find out that prisons are often pitched—like they are in Eastern Kentucky, where one of the chapters of the book takes place—they’re pitched as job creation strategies. They’re not pitched as a necessary means of housing all of the criminals and the people engaged in harmful activities that are spiking. In fact, those spikes are not occurring.
But what is occurring is a spike in unemployment and the destitution of vast numbers of people. And so you see prisons being pitched and built in rural areas as job creation strategies more than as institutions of criminal justice. So I wanted to think through something like property, or in another case wage labor, as social relations that actually uphold and make sense of the prison system much more so than the concepts we are traditionally used to thinking about the prison system through, right? The concepts like crime, punishment, law, order. It turns out that whether or not a neighborhood is gentrifying, how powerful the real estate interests are in that city, is a much better determinant of how empowered the local police are going to be to arrest certain people and criminalize certain activities and therefore fill the bed space of local jails and prisons.
A landscape that I used to open up the book is the landscape of Ferguson and nearby communities that make up St. Louis County in Missouri. And of course this is a town that became part of the national imaginary in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown a few years ago, which itself was one of a spate of police killings of young black men, but was a sort of spark that partially ignited the Black Lives Matter movement and was this sort of incredible example, and yet not unusual example, of police violence against African American and other racialized groups in the United States.
But it’s actually also an interesting case for thinking how space is organized and what space has to tell us. In the case of St. Louis County, there are over 90 different municipalities that are carved into the outer suburbs of St. Louis. These are called postcard communities, they’re so small. Within an eight-mile radius, you might pass through 10 different municipalities. Because they’re different they each have their own mayor, town council, also often their own police force. There’s a long history that explains why the county is divided this way, but it has to do with redlining and other zoning restrictions that segregated space according to race and class from the 1950s onward. But the other interesting thing about this area is that tax rates are historically low. Series of political acts over the past few decades has reduced the ability of these municipalities to actually collect revenue through taxes, local taxes. And that means that the municipalities have to find other ways to pay their garbage men, to pay for their services. And what they’ve done, many of them, has been to empower their local police. Again, there might be 80 different police forces in this area to ticket and fine people en mass as a revenue generating scheme.
Like, think about this, right? We think about police ticketing and fining as a kind of part of civil society, as a way of keeping the peace or maintaining some sort of order. No. In this case it's purely about generating revenue for municipalities that have no other means of making up revenue because tax rates are kept very, very low. When you have a situation in which your town, your community, is flooded with police whose sole job is to harass people and find something to fine them for, then you create the kinds of conditions that led to Mike Brown being killed. Overpolicing is, um, it’s deadily, for some people.
You know, a lot of, a lot of work, a lot of important academic work, journalism work, film work is predicated on unearthing that which is unseen. You know, making visible gross disparities of power, mass injustice in some way. And I think that that’s very important. And I think when it comes to something like the prison system, the invisibility is a real problem that needs to be countered. But I also think that there’s a way in which the things that we see are their own form of disguise, their own form of a hiding, right? And part of the project of both the film and the book was to ask what is it that we do see that hides something, that disguises the kinds of power dynamics, historical contingencies, vested interests that went into producing that thing in the first place. It’s the project I think of critical inquiry, whether it takes the form of a book or a film or some other kind of output to help us un-see certain things, as well as to see certain things, so that we can act in the world and remake it with new vision.
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University of Minnesota Press
Brett Story is a geographer and award-winning nonfiction filmmaker based in Toronto whose work focuses on racial capitalism, ideology, and carceral space. She holds a PhD in geography from the University of Toronto and is currently an assistant professor in the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University. Her 2016 feature documentary, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival and was a nominee for Best Feature Documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards. The film was broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens in April of 2017. Brett was a 2016 Sundance Institute Art of Nonfiction Fellow and a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow in film and video. She is the author of the book, Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power across Neoliberal America, and coeditor of the forthcoming volume, Infrastructures of Citizenship. Her latest feature documentary, The Hottest August, is currently playing festivals and will be opening theatrically this fall.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
An absolutely necessary book. Gilmore helps us understand the carceral state in California and elsewhere through four surpluses: surplus land, surplus labor, surplus capital, and surplus state capacity. She methodically tracks how and why these surpluses, each of them endemic to racial capitalism, help organize and make logical the proliferation of prisons.
In this book, Smith tracks and deconstructs the political economy of gentrification in urban centers. His description of urban transformations in Manhattan in the 1980s and 1990s would prove prescient, noting how, in the service of profitability, then-Mayor Giuliani instructed New York police officers to remove homeless people from public spaces and to criminalize a broad swath of activities deemed inimical to “the quality of life” in city neighborhoods.
Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, Brian Roberts
A really incredible read about the coproduction of the police state in Britain with Thatcherism, and also a methodical deconstruction of ideological tropes, like the idea of mugging, and their salience to British political transformations.