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Interactive Tool Reveals Counties, Not Cities, Lock Up the Highest Proportions Of People

We’ve known for a long time that state prisons have been built more often in rural areas than in urban areas; that prisons have been job creators in post-industrial America. We also have known that county jails have been built and expanded, too in the era of mass incarceration.

What we have not known, until now, is that county jails in rural areas have been doing much of the heavy lifting in terms of warehousing America’s prisoners.

The distinction between state prisons and county jail is important. When the state sentences someone they are free to ship them anywhere in the state. But when a county sentences someone, or a state sentence is two years or less, the time is served in the county in which the offense occurred. So, one would expect that incarceration rates across counties would be fairly uniform. Also, if the stereotype of the more dangerous urban milieu is to be upheld, we might expect higher rates of incarceration in urban counties. Not so.

A remarkable study by the Vera Institute In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails, reveals that incarceration has grown the most outside of the largest counties and the largest cities.

“While the largest jails—such as those in NYC, LA, and Cook County, often draw the most attention and are the ones most often discussed by policymakers and the media, Vera found that these jails have not grown the most, nor are they among the ones with the highest incarceration rates,” explains Vera Institute.”

Instead, mid-sized and small counties have largely driven growth. Generally, jail populations growing faster than prison populations. 

Overall, there has been more than a four-fold increase in the number of people held in jail, from 157,000 to 690,000, since 1970.

“Large counties [jail rates] grew by 2.8 times, while mid-sized counties more than quadrupled, and small counties experienced almost a seven-fold increase,” reports the Vera Institute.



In addition to the surprising results of the report is the way in which Vera Institute has rolled out the findings. They’ve launched an interactive tool.

In the video at the top of this post, Vera Researcher Christian Henrichson discusses the Incarceration Trends tool.

We’ve known for a some years that the data for open and manipulable interactives has been available, but verifying the data, filling in the absent data (which happens a lot through different jurisdictions) and then standardising the data for a software program to convert it to user friendly format takes a lot of time, some cash and a good amount of skills. Vera Institute’s work here should propel us forward.

I contend that data visualisation is as essential, if not more so than photography in terms of informing citizens about the prison industrial complex.

In journalism, Gabriel Dance, at the Marshall Project, is making strides in presenting data for the public, for example Next One To Die. In advocacy, the Prison Policy Initiative has done much in wrangling data on county, state, federal, ICE and private facilities. In art, Josh Begley’s Prison Map and Paul Rucker’s Proliferation have both tried to present the terrifying growth of the PIC in ways that engage gallery goers and screen viewers alike. (It should be noted both Rucker’s work are based on the PPI data.) I’m certain there are other practitioners in these fields and more trying to present data and imagery in engaging ways for us out here.


Within the surprising city/county upturn of conventional wisdom, are these two disturbing trends:

  • African Americans make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population. African Americans have the highest incarceration rates, particularly in mid-sized and small counties.
  • Female incarceration rates have skyrocketed, and are highest in the smallest counties. Since 1970, there has been more than a 14-fold increase in the number of women held in jail, from fewer than 8,000 women in 1970 to 110,000 women in 2014.


Essential to criminal justice reform efforts is reliable information. The Vera’s Incarceration Trends tool provides easy comparisons on incarceration data for counties nationwide.

I anticipate this new tool will prepare the public, inform legislators and arm activists. As Henrichson encourages, go check out what’s happening in your county

Read the report in full In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails. Check out the accompanying fact sheet, and visit to research yourself.

More coverage: Who is Putting the Most People in Jail? Not New York, Chicago, or LA. (The Marshall Project)


If you’re in NYC, get yourself to lower Manhattan tomorrow evening.

Josh Begley is a data artist and web developer, well known for creating an iPhone app to track every reported U.S. drone strike.

In his artist talk ‘Visualizing Carceral Space’, Begley will discuss his projects Prison Map and Dronestream (a.k.a MetaData).

Begley will speak from 6:00 to 7:30 pm, on Thursday March 12th, at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, 2 W13th Street in the ground-floor Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery.

The talk is offered as part of the programming for Prison Obscura showing at Parsons which features an expanded, custom-made version of Prison Map.

Josh Begley‘s work has appeared in WiredThe New York TimesNPRThe AtlanticNew York Magazine, and at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. He currently works at The Intercept doing incredible things like this.

Follow Josh on Twitter at @joshbegley and on @dronestream.






I was invited by WIRED to write about Josh Begley‘s work Prison Map. The article is Aerial Photos Expose the American Prison System’s Staggering Scale:

There are some 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States. That’s more people than there are in all of New Mexico. And there are more jails and prisons than colleges and universities in this country. Still, it can be difficult to grasp the scale of incarceration in America, in part because so many of these facilities are tucked away far from view in rural areas.

Prison Map provides a sense of the enormity of it all by giving us a fascinating vantage point from which to view the architecture of incarceration. Begley’s created a vast visual compendium of the nation’s jails and prisons, comprising more than 5,300 aerial images that offer a compelling metaphor for the rapid expansion of the American prison system.

Prison Map is about visualizing carceral space,” says Begley. “We have terms like the ‘prison industrial complex’ but what does that actually look like? If you were to stitch together all these spaces of exception, how might they appear from above?”

Read more at WIRED.


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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.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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