I came to the prison, at first, indirectly. Not through arrest or conviction at all, but through eviction. The first time I was evicted, it was the mid-1980s and I was a child living in Toronto with my mother, a single parent on social assistance. We shared a bedroom in a house with a group of other, mostly low income, women. The real estate market in our neighborhood had just begun heating up, and the collective rent paid by the tenants in our house didn’t match what other apartments in the neighborhood were starting to rent for. So our landlord took advantage of a loophole in the municipal rent-control rules to evict all of us. Modest single-family homes in that same neighborhood now sell for millions of dollars.
Almost twenty years later, I found myself facing eviction again, under similar circumstances, though as a student rather than as a child. I’d moved to Montreal in the late 1990s, just as its independent music scene was exploding and the hangover of Quebec separatism still guaranteed cheap rents for working people, artists, and activists. The province’s flight risk (manifested as late as 1995 in a province-wide referendum on independence from Canada) made the terrain too unstable for real-estate capital, which was good news for everyone I knew. It meant we could work part-time jobs and spend our real time doing political organizing, making art, and building community. But that eventually started to change, and the real estate developers descended. When my landlord evicted my roommates and me in a legally suspect move with echoes of the eviction I’d faced as child, I decided to make a film about gentrification and its consequences.
During this period, my social activism also became more closely focused on access to housing and on challenging the displacement of the poor and working-class from Montreal’s downtown core. In trying to make sense of how the city was transforming, I discovered the scholarship of radical geographers, and particularly the work of gentrification theorist Neil Smith. Through organizing and studying, I came to understand the two evictions of my life not as a coincidence, nor as a consequence of personal failure, but as expressions of capital. I learned how to read the city itself as a landscape of power, and I began to make alliances with others whose experiences of poverty, often bound up with structural racism, conditioned their vulnerability vis-à-vis both the state and the market.
One cannot organize against housing displacement and urban gentrification without confronting, almost immediately, the role of the police in urban space. My little personal film about eviction became, necessarily, a bigger story about urban policing, about the criminalization of poverty and homelessness, and about the power of real estate capital in determining who gets to be in certain spaces and who doesn’t. When police swept up homeless people and used new laws against panhandling to move or jail them, it was at the behest of the tourism industry or a condo developer, or both. I had not encountered the prison directly, but I was face to face with the processes of urban class conquest, for which the revanchist technologies of police and prisons are often put to work. This seemingly indirect route is also the path taken by this book, which proposes that we examine the U.S. prison system from the external geographies that fuel its reproduction and its growth.
There is a long history within geography of demystifying everyday landscapes, excavating the forces, relations, and structures of power hidden within a given spatial field. I remember first reading the geographer David Harvey describe how construction cranes in the urban skyline tell us how capital is moving through real estate in the form of new building development, thus signaling the importance (or lack thereof) of that particular city to the global economy. I now see construction cranes along a skyline differently from how I did before; they’ve lost their innocence. Similarly, when economic geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes prisons as partial geographical solutions to political crises, she is asking us to take seriously the spatial dimensions of the prison industrial complex (where prisons are built, for example, or where prisoners come from) as clues pointing to the actual crises (rooted in capitalism), rather than the spurious crisis (so-called “crime,” or lawlessness) for which prisons are claimed as deputized solutions. Space, it turns out, matters a great deal. The work of these thinkers, foundational to my own analysis and activism, underscores the importance of geography (of landscape, of territory, of spatial processes and relationships) not just as an object of study, but as a method of investigation, as a way into thinking differently about the present condition, including the role of the prison within the landscape of our social order.
I am a geographer by academic training, but a nonfiction filmmaker by practice. From 2014 to 2016, while researching and writing this book, I made a feature-length documentary film called The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. The formal conceit of the film is simple: it is a film about the U.S. prison system in which you never (or almost never) see a prison. Constructed as a series of twelve vignettes that unfold across the diverse geographies of American life—a coalfield, a wildfire, a chess park, a long-distance bus—the film invites audiences to think about the prison spatially and systematically, as an institution both produced out of, and productive of the forces that govern and organize the existing social and economic order. It is a film less about crime and criminal justice than about racial capitalism and its consequences as dispersed across the landscapes we inhabit and call home.
The film was released publically in the spring of 2016 and was, to my surprise (given its formal premise and political orientation), something of a success as far as these things go. Reviewed favorably by the New York Times (where it was a critics’ pick), nominated for a Canadian Screen Award, and broadcast on prime-time television on PBS’s Independent Lens series, the film has gone on to screen everywhere from church basements to law schools and from art galleries to penitentiary classrooms. I’d like to think the film has resonated so widely because what it tries to say and, certainly, what it tries to ask are matters of common sense: Why do we lock so many people up? Who bears the consequences? What interests does the prison serve? That the answers to these questions lead to at least an incipient abolitionist politics, opening up a way of imagining a society that can exist without prisons and other like structures of violence, is my greatest hope.
It is important to point out that the film emerged alongside this book and in collaboration with it. The questions asked and the methodologies developed in the making of these two artifacts are necessarily bound up with one another, even as their final forms differ. In some cases, the methodological overlap is overt. Many of the interviews I conducted for the film and the scenes that I observed alongside my cinematographer make their way into the chapters that follow (with the permission of their subjects, of course). For example, when I travelled to eastern Kentucky in the summer of 2014, it was with a small film crew and at the invitation of justice scholar Judah Schept, whom I’d met at an academic conference in Tennessee the previous year. Just as there is a chapter in this book on coal decline and prison construction in eastern Kentucky, there is also a section in the film that visualizes the dreams of the region’s workers as they are animated by the promise of a prison boom. In other cases, the relationship between the writing and the filmmaking unfolded in the reverse. For example, it was after travelling the route to Attica on a chartered bus for visitors from New York a number of times, as fieldwork for this book, that I decided to ask some of the people I met whether I might bring along a camera and film the journey. That footage now opens and closes the film.
Nonfiction filmmaking and geographic inquiry have much in common: they are both endeavors invested in questions of seeing. Specifically, each asks how we see, and might see differently, the world that we make and that in turn makes us. The realm of representation is a fraught one, and the work of aesthetics, in its original meaning as “perception through feeling,” is intimately tied to the reproduction or transformation of hegemonic ideas. For me as a filmmaker, there are the questions of what is unseen and how cinema might be harnessed to reveal it or help us see it differently, and then there is the problem of what is seen, and what all that seeing does or doesn’t do. The artist Trevor Paglen, also a geographer, has described his photographs of the so-called “black world” of classified defense activity as a kind of counterimagery. He speaks of his practice as trying to push vision and perception as far as possible, even to the point where it starts to break down. He describes trying to create new vantage points that we can use to look back at ourselves with different kinds of eyes.
Within conventional prison documentaries, the task of making the problem of incarceration evident is almost always conceived of and executed as the production of images of and within the prison itself, as if there were no other way of making the prison or its captive subjects visible, and as if visibility involved nothing more than the state of being able to see and be seen. This has always frustrated me. Over and over again in many of these films, one is offered the terrible inside of a cell, a caged black man or woman, and a story of innocence, redemption, or excess suffering (or all three). However emotionally moving they might be, I wonder what we learn from these films other than how a few people might be rescued, in our imaginations and occasionally in real life. Conceiving of the solution to the invisibility of incarceration and the disappearance of prisoners as simply a matter of exposing the prison’s internal scenery does little to denaturalize the prison as a reified fact on the ground of modern capitalist life, nor does it upset the carceral order as a legitimate system of social differentiation. Worse, a visual focus on the human in a cage can limit our very ability to grasp the social relations, historical processes, and material logics that come to bear on the prison regime’s existence and its continuation.
What is at stake in both the making of a film and the writing of a book is the construction of popular knowledge about the functions of the capitalist state and the legitimacy of its most oppressive institutions and activities. Political transformation has always required multiple strategies and forms of intervention, including rigorous scholarship and disobedient art. I have been a life-long participant in and student of social movements and continue to learn from freedom fighters, both inside and out. Both the film and this book are offered as small contributions to the long struggle they and we are engaged in, the struggle against poverty and racism, forced confinement and forced migration, and the exploitation of labor and of land. The struggle for freedom is a struggle not just against cages, but against a society that could have cages. Let us look everywhere, so that we can act anywhere.