On the Outside

The spaces made by the culture of incarceration.

By Jennifer Reut

A featureless night, seen from a bus window, carrying family members across distances to the prisons where loved ones are confined. A former mining town in Appalachia where residents talk about prison jobs they see coming, and, importantly, keeping. A Los Angeles parklet as a lever to force registered sex offenders to leave a neighborhood. These are some of the places that comprise The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, a new film by the geographer and filmmaker Brett Story. They aren’t in prisons or next to prisons, but the system is everywhere.

If we are only just beginning to reckon with the devastating social and economic costs of our reliance on incarceration, we’ve barely even noticed how they’ve shaped urban and rural space outside the prison walls. “The consequences of the prison system don’t begin and don’t end at the prison gate,” Story says, and those consequences are “not just for people’s lives but also about how space is organized.”

The film takes an oblique, faceted approach to its subjects, showing, rather than describing, the way prison systems and prisoners have created spaces by both their presence and absence. In the accumulation of landscapes and stories, the film makes a powerful argument for prison as an underrecognized actor in the design and use of cities.

Story was prompted by the interplay between the psychological and geographic distance of prisons from the everyday. “Prisons are built really far away and often erased from our maps,” she says, and the film’s concern with revealing and erasure of places of incarceration intersects with the work of other geographers such as Trevor Paglen and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. But Story says the specter of prisons is particularly integral to the way urban space is organized, designed, and controlled, particularly since the urban rebellions of the late 1960s.

The film returns the prison to the scene of the everyday in a way that it once was, before prisons were shipped out to rural areas, and shows us glimpses of a carceral system bound up with neoliberal ideals of gentrification and urban transformation. “We don’t think of cities as taking the form that they do out of shared logic of the prison system,” Story says, “but there’s a really intimate connection between those spaces going back many decades.”

The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is in limited release at select film festivals. It is also available for education and library purchase and screenings. More information is available at www.prisonlandscapes.com.

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