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Prison Map is the most complete visualisation project of America’s prison system that I’ve come across. No surprise that it takes the form of satellite imagery and no surprise it was made with the aid of computer code.

Prison Map is the work of Josh Begley, an Interactive Telecommunications graduate student at NYU. He developed the project as part of Jer Thorp‘s Data Representation class.

The title is a little misleading. “It’s not a map,” says Begley, “It’s a snapshot of the earth’s surface, taken at various points throughout the United States. It begins from the premise that mapping the contours of the carceral state is important.”

A premise I can agree with. In my meagre attempts to comprehend the size and impact of contemporary prison construction, I’ve compared state-commissioned aerial photography with the fine art photography of David Maisel. I’ve also admired the Incarceration Nation project by non-profit Thousand Kites using roving Google Earth imagery to describe penal architectures (although the manual labour behind Incarceration Nation always seemed to big and ultimately wasteful; an irony not lost for a project commenting on the wasteful prison industrial complex.)

Begley had made cursory use of the CDCr’s own aerial photographs for his earlier Prison Count, but that project is shallow by comparison to Prison Map.


Prison Map both orders and exposes the sprawl of prisons in our society; Begley was motivated by the frustration that words and figures often fall short. Again, it is a premise I’m very sympathetic to. What difference does it make if the figure you use to describe an invisible problem has an extra zero or not?

“When discussing the idea of mass incarceration, we often trot out numbers and dates and charts to explain the growth of imprisonment as both a historical phenomenon and a present-day reality,” says Begley. “But what does the geography of incarceration in the US actually look like? What does it mean to have 5,000 or 6,000 people locked up in the same place? What do these carceral spaces look like? How do they transform (or get transformed by) the landscape around them?”


Begley used the Correctional Facility Locator, a project of the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI)*, as his primary tool. The Correctional Facility Locator database includes the hard-to-locate latitude and longitude coordinates of every carceral facility counted in the 2010 US census.

Begley notes that the Correctional Facility Locator is the first and only database to include state and federal prisons alongside local jails, detention centers, and privately-run facilities. 4,916 facilities in total. It is the only such database of which I’m aware.

Using the Google Maps API and the Static Maps service, Begley and Thorp wrote a simple processing sketch that grabbed image tiles at specified latitudes and longitudes, saving each as a JPEG file. The processing sketch cycled through 4,916 facilities.

Some of the captured images were more confusing than instructive – and dealing with nearly five thousand images proved unwieldy – so Begley selected “only” 700 (14%) of the best photos. If you want to see Begley’s entire data set, you can do so here.


The question that this project raises is what can be done with this visualised data to effect change and propel social justice? Artist Paul Rucker used maps created by Rose Heyer (also of PPI) to compose Proliferation. Begley has culled the images; what digital collaging, comparative analysis and collaborations can be constructed with the images?

Perhaps information is more important than images? Toward the end of his TEDxVancouver Talk, Jer Thorp (Begley’s NYU professor) talks about how data represents real life events and their associated emotions. Movements mapped to, fro and between prisons may begin to describe the mass movement within mass incarceration. Specifically dealing with New York State, the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University investigated these types of visualisation with its Million Dollar Blocks project.

An App about the forced migrations within the prison industrial complex is waiting to be built. The first stumbling block is access to data. The prison system is not renowned for being open with its information.

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If you’d like to know more, Josh Begley can be contacted at josh.begley[at]

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Thanks to Sameer Padania for the tip.

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*PPI is one of the most imaginative research groups illuminating the dark recesses of our carceral landscape. PPI Director, Peter Wagner, was a PPOTR interviewee last year offering passion and intelligent analysis of the prison industrial complex. I’ve been aware – and made use – of many PPI resources in the past, but until now was unaware of the Correctional Facility Locator. Kudos to PPI.


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