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Brett Story’s Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power across Neoliberal America is a brilliant and timely study on prison geographies. Story, who is from Canada, arrives to the U.S. prison through her personal experiences of eviction, first as a child and then as a young student fighting against gentrification and documenting it as an amateur filmmaker. As has been the case for anti-displacement organizers and activists across U.S. cities and elsewhere, she found it difficult to film the tale of gentrification without also capturing the roles of policing and confinement. Perhaps because of Story’s commitments to activist scholarship, Prison Land makes much-needed multi-prong interventions, which I explain below, regarding the timeless theories of historical materialism, methodologies, and empirical research precisely to further the spirit of abolition and abolitionist projects. Her laser-sharp analysis, convincing evidence, and tactful storytelling is a must-read for everyone who aims to confront the power of imprisonment at its core – scholars, researchers, instructors, filmmakers, artists and well-informed abolitionist organizers.
Story, who is a thoughtful student of leading historical materialists such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Cindi Katz, enters the debate on “mass incarceration” – where the study of imprisonment and control has evolved in popular discourse – reminding us that material political economic formations are, after all, social relationships. In this regard, the material fabric of the prison is not just the enclosed physical structure made of cement blocks, steel, and barbwire, as most have been led to believe. The prison is a set of social and economic relations of power; these relations are also spatial and connective and stretch beyond the physically bifurcating site of the prison. Indeed, the social spatial relations of the prison, as Story proposes, are in places where the prison is never or hardly ever seen. For Story, the prison is an institution produced by, and reproductive of the forces that govern and organize social and economic relations.
Moreover, while this research informed her highly acclaimed documentary film, Prison Land is by no means the written sequel to A Prison in Twelve Landscapes. No doubt, Story is as brilliant a filmmaker on carceral geographies as she is a writer. But Story is geographer by training who, in the process of researching and writing Prison Land, created a film which debuted three years before this book. A Prison in Twelve Landscapes, which is void of dense dialogue and sound effects, centers on masterful cinematography that captures the many ordinary and extraordinary landscapes of American life that are intimately connected prisons, even though we never actually see a prison. The landscapes of imprisonment captured in her film ranged between an intergenerational chess match in New York City’s Washington Square Park and California’s magnificent forests ravaged by wildfires and entirely dependent on being saved by imprisoned women. Here, I would argue, is the heart of Story’s methodological intervention. Story studies the social spatial relations of power contoured by prisons. However, the geography of the prison is not the object of study as much as it is her method of study. Story’s documentary film was not her primary outcome, per se, as much as it was her dialectical method for theorizing, researching, analyzing, and writing about imprisonment that now culminates into this book.
Prison Land presents timely empirical research on the dynamism of imprisonment using five discrete landscapes all while taking seriously the crux of this moment in the lifespan of carceral expansion and reforms. As evidenced by her thoughtfully chosen case studies, the forces that organize imprisonment are in motion, tugging and pulling in every direction. The future of imprisonment is currently a terrain of struggle that seems to be taking new, but strangely familiar formations. The expansion electronic monitoring, for example, is coupled with more (rather than less) imprisonment. Indeed, the contemporary carceral reforms in U.S. are re-entrenching the set of social and economic relations of power that have surrounded the U.S. prison since the prison boom began. Prison Land shows that the terrain of struggle (and abolition) is geographically specific given that the forces that organize prison landscapes are also geographically specific. Following the work of her mentor, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Story demonstrates that prisons are in part made possible by putting to work federal, state, and local state capacity; tech, finance and real estate capital; black, brown and white people; and rural, urban, abundant and abandoned land — unevenly and differently everywhere.
In other words, the prison not only produces crisis for people imprisoned and their loved ones, but it is also in crisis. Story’s discrete landscapes turned into case studies capture the dynamic and multiple forces at play in this current conjuncture and struggle over power – the late capital ventures and police-property relations of downtown Detroit (Chapter 1), the new age, “alternatives” to incarceration programs in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York (Chapter 2), the rural impoverished, and abandoned coal towns of eastern Kentucky (Chapter 3), the circuitry of the family visitation bus between midtown and upstate New York (Chapter 4), and the subliminal space of “community corrections” and “community policing,” which absorb the labor and love of friends and family into the policing and control of people who have been released from custody (Chapter 5).
In all, her work provides a broad overview of imprisonment and its spatial relations of power, from the quotidian survival strategies of loved ones on the visitors’ bus, to the harrowing moments policing and arrest. As such, if we can connect the separate geographically specific realities between people on a bus, people in rural towns, people in urban centers, then perhaps the struggle for power is a little more attainable. For this, I believe, Story’s writing most realistically helps us see, as a political project, what rigidly practical abolitionism might look like, the everyday practices, here and now, that can challenge the material realities of confinement.
Story’s exposition accurately captures today’s conjuncture of carceral reforms. These reforms animate and, in part, organize the country’s decentralized and varied system of confinement, which unquestionably – perhaps until now – includes immigration control. It is here, from the vantage point of my own research, where Story’s work presents a possible missing but important part of the carceral state. Immigration enforcement is imbricated and relies on the country’s uneven carceral geographies. So much so that, I would argue, it is difficult to study and write about prison landscapes and carceral reforms without also noting the transformative powers of immigration enforcement operations on the systems of confinement and policing. While no one project can center on all possible interventions, a brief mention on the role of federal immigration authorities in her discussion related to electronic monitoring, for example, would have sufficed. Immigration confinement technologies are after all helping to form the most recent phases of confinement, such as remote court proceedings, virtual family visits, and electronic monitoring. Despite this minor omission, Prison Land is an invaluable, must-read resource for researchers in the field of immigration and immigration enforcement. Prison Land will surely help researchers bridge their work on immigration enforcement to the world of carceral studies.
Prison Land should be incorporated into course curricula related to urban studies and gentrification, social reproduction and gendered labor, immigration and immigration enforcement, prison and jail studies, and even on the study of power. Story’s creative depiction of the structured and social organization of the prison can help especially undergraduate readers engage with difficult concepts such as racial capitalism, the carceral state, carceral reforms and penal abolition. However, if one must choose, I would recommend using her documentary film as primary course material and Prison Land as a necessary companion where instructors can draw discussion questions and guide students through a viewing of her film. Documentary films are useful but rare pedagogical tools that allow instructors to incorporate different modalities of learning and battle with heavy and messy concepts. In whatever configuration, Prison Land is must-have material for teaching about carceral geographies.
With instructors in mind, I end by providing a quick summary of each content chapter. While Prison Land is best read in its entirety, each chapter narrows in on a discrete geography and details the complexity of social spatial relations of prison geographies. Each chapter is clearly framed to help readers see the spatial specificity of the prison despite its absence, shares convincing data, and ends with a brief discussion on abolition. This formula helps readers imagine the possibility of entering each of these geographies as a political actor.
In Chapter 1, Story introduces us to a world of contradictory assemblages in the urban landscape in Downtown Detroit, produced by the late-finance capital ventures of securities (consolidated and resold loans) and security (surveillance technology, city police, and private personnel) that are both dichotomous but symbiotic in relation to each other. Detroit, a once industrial and union wage epicenter of American capitalism, is now a city remade by a bankrupt government, a moment of rock bottom real estate prices, and rapacious tech and finance sector which aggregate highly skilled young white men in downtown buildings and displace homeless black men in the periphery. This chapter would pair well with curriculum on urbanization and gentrification.
In Chapter 2, the late arrival of developers and capital speculators to the once impermeable neighborhood of Brownsville of Brooklyn, New York is in tandem with the roll out of diversion, “new age” policing, and “alternatives to incarceration” programs. Story traces these carceral reforms in the wake of the 2008 fiscal crisis, which have moved less towards downsizing corrections spending and more towards funding public-private initiatives and programs the extend the state’s control post-custodial release. Although driven in the names of advancing the three r’s – justice reinvestment, anti-recidivism, and reentry – the programs are instead bringing about new technologies of policing and prosecutorial powers while reinforcing the same kinds of criminal legal consequences and neoliberal subjectivities around responsibility and guilt. This chapter would pair well with curriculum on transformative justice or policing technologies.
Story also presents a vivid narrative of organized abandonment, extreme poverty, and prison construction by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons in the rocky Appalachian terrains of eastern Kentucky – not a state or municipal, but federal agency. Once the site where President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “War on Poverty,” eastern Kentucky became the chosen place for several prison construction projects based on its historical contingencies of genocide, extraction, and abandonment. Like state prison construction, federal prison construction also occurs in marginalized, peripheral spaces, which are connected by way of relationships to distant, non-contiguous places. In Chapter 3, Story most clearly demonstrates the painful realities of class and race struggle, which are most apparent in places like eastern Kentucky and therefore ripe for anti-racist, multi-racial abolitionist efforts. This chapter would pair well with curriculum on the welfare state, race, agricultural policies, and energy.
The psychological and bodily grind of imprisonment is borne not just by people who are sentenced, but also by their family members and loved ones who in non-metaphorical ways also serve time. In Chapter 4, Story writes about people who take on the arduous journey traversing on the prison visitors’ bus from New York City to upstate prison towns all in an effort to take care of their loved ones who have been banished to faraway places. The bus is rooted in long histories of classed and racialized struggle – it is the most symbolic distillation of the Civil Rights era, for example. For Story, the bus signifies a connective space that can also help organize families’ otherwise disordered labor and social reproduction, on which the prison relies. This is a key chapter for a curriculum focused on social reproduction and informal economies, and a great way to end a course on the Civil Rights movement and its unfinished promises of equality.
The final content chapter ends with a review of the subliminal spaces of “community corrections” and “community policing” – a second window into the future of the prison industrial complex. Under an ongoing crisis of legitimacy, “community” appeases the anger and distrust, which have proliferated against penal and policing institutions in recent years. These spaces extend the prison’s functions, while absorbing the capacities of neighborhoods, homes, and public landscapes. Electronic monitoring, for example, repurposes the space of the home into a space of confinement and transfers the costs of food and other reproductive responsibilities on to the individual and their social network. This chapter would pair well with curriculum on drug policies, policing and military technologies.