“The concept of ordinary crisis,” writes Brett Story in her new book, Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power across Neoliberal America, “helps underscore how a set of quotidian discomforts can radically upend the careful management of scarce resources, including one’s own physical capacities, time, and money.”
Some look to our borders, visualizing caravans of invaders. Meanwhile, systems that most of us deem necessary to our health and safety have, in fact, invaded, imposing such ordinary crisis and worse. Story insists that we conceive of the prison itself “not as simply an edifice, as a place made up of walls and cells and mess halls,” but as a “set of relationships.”
These relationships, she argues, are spread across “various landscapes in American economic and political life,” and they make up the various systems of incarceration that operate throughout the United States, well beyond the walls of the prison.
And they are not broken systems, as some proponents of reform would assert. Indeed, Story rigorously articulates, these systems are thriving.
Story’s acclaimed 2017 feature documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is a stirring and impressionistic film made up of a dozen vignettes. While never showing the inside of a prison, these episodes coalesce to outline a world in which incarceration reaches far out into everyday American life. In it, we hear from the sprightly and almost unreal “Detroit Relocation Ambassador” for Quicken Loans as he stands at the heart of one of the most ostentatious gentrification projects in the country; we hear from female prisoners in California who fight wildfires; we hear from a man who has made it his business to navigate the regulations imposed on those who wish to send life’s necessities to their incarcerated loved ones; and we eavesdrop on women waiting to board a bus that will take them six or eight hours to visit relatives at one of many upstate New York prisons. Much of the film’s argument is made in implication.
While the film and the book create a productive complement to each other and share what Story calls a “methodological overlap,” Prison Land offers almost none of the impressionism and implication that the documentary employs. In place of that, the book is uncompromisingly rigorous. Like the documentary, it shows nothing at all of the world inside prison walls. It is, in fact, a sort of reaction to “conventional prison documentaries,” which Story says often employ the tactic of putting prisons and prisoners on display, “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.”
Story hinges her work on this critique. And the result is indispensable. Students of everything from American studies and social justice to urban planning and economics would be well served by a study of Prison Land. And although the language is often academic, Story’s background as a documentarian and community organizer come through in the book’s many narrative moments, as in the fourth chapter, “The Prison In-Between: Caretaking and Crisis on the Visitors’ Bus”:
Prisons isolate, but they also aggregate. They aggregate people on the inside, and they also aggregate people on the outside. People are amassed in courtrooms and in mess halls, in visiting centers and at public defenders’ offices. And they are aggregated on the bus. Circulating most often between the poles of the urban neighborhood and the rural penitentiary, a vast network of buses traverse long distances and monotonous highways across the United States, carrying loved ones to and from the prison visiting centers that dot the carceral landscape. The bus riders are caretakers in motion, their route is a holding pattern, and their vehicle is a carceral space suturing the social fragmentations of prison life.
In just this chapter alone, Story makes a devastating and convincing case for understanding the ways in which carceral space stretches into the ordinary. As New York State’s incarceration rates have increased, so have the existence of private and often exploitative bus lines, which service the various black and Latinx women (for they are mostly black and Latinx women) who wish to visit incarcerated relatives. This, too, can be understood as a kind of carceral space, Story argues, in that “its very existence is contingent on the coerced geographic removal of prisoners from their families, social networks, and communities.”
But what’s more, and what is detailed through various case studies here, is that the conditions imposed by these buses on their riders “echo the conditions of incarceration.” The imposition of physical distress, financial expense, and exhaustion makes these journeys an incredible burden. These realities, when read alongside statistics that link regular visitation with higher rates of survival and stability for the incarcerated, reveal a kind of fiendish and systemic violence behind what is, again, a well-functioning system. Why, after all, do incarcerated people end up imprisoned a full day’s drive or more away from their families? Why do we accept this as necessary?
And further in: why do we accept the prison as necessary?
The assertion that we don’t need — and shouldn’t have — prisons is generally received as radical. To announce one’s belief in prison abolition is to stop many conversations dead in their tracks. Reform can go a little further, depending on one’s company. But indeed, Prison Land asks that we unthink the prison’s necessity in our society, and it does so via methods that are clear-headed and inventive. The imposition of physical and financial distress upon the loved ones of incarcerated people as a tool of the carceral system might not occur to someone who has no direct ties to incarcerated people. In fact, through that concept of ordinary crisis, Story argues that these systematized impositions become largely invisible even to those living through it all.
Owing to the direct appeal and inventiveness of this lens, the story of the prison visitor bus is worthy of deep consideration, but it is not the only case that Story makes. A careful but scathing analysis of civil gang injunctions easily turns the term “radical” back on itself. For while prison and policing abolition is generally seen as radical, the realities of civil gang injunctions cannot be understood as anything but radical policing.
With little to no oversight, police in cities that have gang injunction processes in place are afforded the power to place whomever they want into gang injunction databases. Once served with an injunction, individuals are prohibited from “‘standing, sitting, walking, driving, gathering, or appearing anywhere in public view’ with someone suspected of being a gang member,” according to Alex S. Vitale in his excellent book The End of Policing. Police officers may serve injunctions to those they deem gang members, more or less at the drop of a hat and owing to something as simple as one’s fashion choices, “without the due processes afforded those subject to the criminal-justice system,” Story writes. And while it is easy to end up on one of these lists, “given the low burden of proof and discretionary power accorded to police, getting oneself removed from the lists is remarkably difficult.”
Moreover, “[t]hose found in violation of a civil gang injunction can be arrested and convicted under criminal law,” sending individuals into a criminal justice system spiral. “Once an area is under a gang injunction, police authority expands exponentially.”
As of October 2016, according to Story, the city of Los Angeles enforced gang injunctions against 10,000 people, “barring them from engaging in certain activities in areas of the city” totaling 15 percent of the city's population. The civil gang injunction, it seems, is less a policing method than a way of creating criminality out of thin air.
Story not only makes this clear, she further asks the reader to consider geography, as she does with every one of these case studies, and to great effect. “What is notable about civil injunctions is not just who they control, but where such control is deemed useful and productive.” She points out that, following the patterns of broken windows policing, these civil injunctions often target spaces “undergoing or aspiring toward rising property values and urban revitalization projects,” disproportionately targeting “low-income youth of color.”
Prison Land is a radical book, all the more for its clarity and inventiveness. Story writes in the introduction that “[a]n abolitionist politic is, at its core, transformative, seeking to remake the social relations and power inequities that give rise to the prison system and for which the prison system does work.” Indeed while the prison system seeks to simply reshuffle and make invisible whole sections of the American people, Prison Land works to undo that invisibility.
The stakes involved in reconsidering the system that Prison Land elucidates and challenges could not be greater. The ready acceptance of a system that destroys lives is the “invasion” we should all be talking about. And if it is overwhelming to accept that these entrenched systems must be overturned, let Prison Land be a signpost to the particulars.
Mark Trecka is a Chicago-born writer, artist, and performer. His writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, Beacon Press’s Broadside, Salon, The Creators Project, and elsewhere.