Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, CRIMINOLOGY AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 17 November 2017

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile Territory

Summary and Keywords

As we begin to think about the United States as a carceral state, this means that the scale of incarceration practices have grown so great within it that they have a determining effect on the shape of the the society as a whole. In addition to the budgets, routines, and technologies used is the culture of that carceral state, where relationships form between elements of its culture and its politics. In terms of its visual culture, that relationship forms a visuality, a culture and politics of vision that both reflects the state’s carceral qualities and, in turn, helps to structure and organize the society in a carceral manner. Images, architecture, light, presentation and camouflage, surveillance, and the play of sight between groups of people and the world are all materials through which the ideas of a society are worked out, its politics played out, its technology implemented, its rationality or common sense and identities forming. They also shape the politics of freedom and control, where what might be a free, privileged expression to one person could be a dangerous exposure to another, where invisibility or inscrutability may be a resource. In this article, these questions are asked in relation to the history of prison architecture, from premodern times to the present, while considering the multiple discourses that overlap throughout that history: war, enslavement, civil punishment, and freedom struggle, but also a discourse of agency, where subordinated peoples can or cannot resist, or remain hostile to or in difference from the control placed upon them.

Keywords: prison architecture, racism, colonialism, militarism, visual culture, mass incarceration, fortress, abolition, carceral state, slavery, state theory, crime, photography, camouflage, art, documentary

Forms of Seeing

Forms of seeing carry information. Their vision can be read like a language, one that speaks to the physiological and technological devices that have structured them. They carry the histories of life, war, manufacture, and money that have produced their eyes, their fingerprints written throughout them.

Consider the Earth as a blue-green marble afloat in an empty blue field: this is an image we know only from the camera, the spacecraft, and their technological and military histories. Zoom from that marble into a detail on its surface, as we do on Google Earth, into a city, a street, a park, a desert, a prison. This zoom also carries the material histories that give it its visual sense: satellite production, the navigational tropes of Google Earth and its archive of satellite imagery, the software that stitches them into a digital globe, and the panoptic ideologies of modernism that speak through both the cinema’s zoom and the digital infinities of globalization’s computer screen.

Now zoom into the overlap between North and Central Americas: into the Caribbean, into the island archipelago of the Greater Antilles—the “West Indies”—and into the island territories taken by the United States from Spain in 1898, by Spain from the Taíno people four centuries before, and, within them, the island Spain named Puerto Rico.

It is here that we can trace a specific intersection of visualities, forms of seeing that carry the histories that have shaped them: regimes of colonialism, war, slavery, and the discourse of modern criminality. Rather than approach these as unrelated or wholly discrete topics, their mutual overlap at this site, within their repurposing of one another’s architecture, their shared spatializations and the seeing they stage, blurs any neat distinctions between them. In their staging of vision, these histories’ conceptual foundations are mutually structured, implemented, and reflected: where concepts of inside and outside, self and other, the dehumanization of that other and their capitulation as a material, a slave, an enemy, a criminal, controlled through regimes of social and corporeal death, reveal continuities between them. By reading these continuities across their shared visual language, we can destabilize the understanding of crime control as a thing that belongs organically to a democratic social order. Instead, the decoding of this palimpsest visual regime can help us to see criminological discourse as an inheritance of colonial, enslavement, and wartime orders, one that maintains their social, political, and economic relations into the present.

Between a Fortress and a Prison

On the northern tip of Puerto Rico sits a rolling stretch of green space that looks out over the North Atlantic Ocean. At the edges of its mounding grass are wind-weathered walls of stone, dotted by small circular structures. Their interiors are the size of a body or two. Their walls encircle you and direct your vision out over the ocean through a vertical sliver of window. For the locals and tourists who walk the area today, who sightsee, jog its perimeters, and hold secret parties in its elbows and armpits, it may be easy to see this slivered framing of one’s vision as a mere vista onto the ocean’s receding blue. They might not recognize it for its particular history of looking, its military looking, the martial gaze that it was meant to organize into the larger function of this fortress, a technique of defense and an offensive weapon. Indeed, these garitas—rocky turrets dating back to the 1500s—are outlooks and artillery points with which this fortress, the Castillo San Felipe del Morro (Figure 1), was to guard the colonial possession of this harbor, which Spain had named San Juan.

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile TerritoryClick to view larger

Figure 1. View onto the North Atlantic Ocean from one of the garitas of the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Puerto Rico. (By Ashley Hunt, 2012)

The distinctive shape of these windows is important: tall narrow slits cut into stone, allowing vision to go out but little to come in. These slits allowed the direction of this gaze and the aim of an armament out toward competitors’ ships, while limiting the space through which any incoming munition or body could pass—a geometric compromise between a maximum field of vision and a minimum exposure of the body and equipment within.

Paul Virilio and George Collins write, “The bunker, defensive architecture, is not the expression of a neoclassical aesthetic, as in the official architecture of the Nazi regime. It issues from a different history, the history of arms and entrenchment” (1994, p. 45). Suggesting here that architecture expresses its history, Virilio and Collins remind us to see in material terms what often appears merely as design, and of the long-standing relationship between architecture, image, and war. This continues to shape the visual organization of our world—structuring the body, its perception, and its relationship to space.

One can trace the use of such windows throughout the known history of architecture, its surfaces scarred throughout by warfare. They puncture an ancient city wall just as they stripe the walls of territorial conquest and expansion, from spaces of siege and defense alike. From the early castles of Norman conquest to the World War II bunkers that proliferate from Normandy to the Pacific Islands and beyond (Figure 2), their principle echoes the Roman limes that guarded the edges of its imperial spaces, the ponderous fortifications of Crusaders’ castles, of colonial churches, missions and forts as they colonized the Americas, African and Asia, their repetition in each case evidencing a site within hostile territory.

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile TerritoryClick to view larger

Figure 2. Ruin of a Japanese bunker on Saipan Island, Northern Mariana Islands, U.S. Territory since the end of World War II. (By Ashley Hunt, 2015)

Not 10 miles from the Castillo San Felipe del Morro sits the U.S. Federal Metropolitan Detention Center at Guaynabo (Figure 3), whose many-storied concrete façade is patterned by this same slit-shaped window. Instead of keeping things out, this window’s architecture keeps things in—those “things” in this case being people. Regardless of region, jurisdiction, period of design, or security classification, one will find these slot-windows in prison walls around the world, as hundreds of cuts in the skin of otherwise impassable walls, allowing the minimum of natural light that international law requires, while punitively limiting the passage of body and vision—the latter often considered by prison workers a form of “access to the free world.”

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile TerritoryClick to view larger

Figure 3. U.S. Federal Detention Center at Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. (By Ashley Hunt, 2012)

With the exception of the military prison, we don’t typically think of the prison in the frame of war but in that of peacetime, as an architecture of civil rather than martial order. Peopling the prison, we are told, are transgressors of civil law, laws said to protect the rights of fellow citizens rather than the sovereignty of states, as acts of crime rather than acts of war. But just as faithfully as this window has served fortification and confinement alike, the distinction between imprisonment and war-making never remains so clear. Tracing their overlapping histories through their shared politics of vision, we can grasp what lies beneath the optics of what some today call a carceral state.

Modernity, Criminalization, and the Disavowal of Injury

The relationship between the looking of war and the looking of prisons can tell us something about the nature of contemporary imprisonment, developed from techniques and contexts of warfare and, today, at work among the warfare-like conditions foisted upon the communities most subject to imprisonment. Thinking about this visually offers us more than coincidences of appearance and historical adjacencies. It introduces us to the symbolic dimension of the culture in which mass imprisonment takes place—the images, the staging of looking, and the understandings of the world that it makes.

According to Elaine Scarry, there is a symbolic dimension to warfare beyond the “mass infliction of injury” that characterizes it, wherein the “attributes” of war’s massive injury are disavowed. This disavowal requires a “reciprocal . . . disowning of the injury so that its attributes can be transferred elsewhere” (Scarry, 1985, p. 64). In this transference of war’s injury “elsewhere,” while its injury may remain physically visible, it is made to symbolize otherwise—not as an injury but self-defense, not as violence but justice, as God’s will, nature’s order, not war but peace. Or in the case of the culture of mass imprisonment and contemporary policing, the violence of racial, class, gender and sexual subordination is disavowed, made to symbolize as the preservation of law and order.

Presented as something outside the spaces of war, modern “law and order” discourse provides a normalized structure for maintaining but disavowing the massive injuries that have been visited historically upon whole communities. By transferring the conditions brought by such injury onto individuals as their own attributes, their symptoms and methods for survival are decontextualized, alienated from their history and articulated only as something wrong with a particular person, their community, culture, or family structure. Criminological theories and cultural portrayals of the irrationally violent, depraved, and criminally predisposed, not only buoy racial ideologies and justify repression, in this way they cleanse the larger culture of its responsibility.

We can chart this play of meanings as they have developed from the cultures of colonialisms, from the colonial and imperial dispossessions that enabled modern Western development, the formation of its identity, and the continuing coloniality that, today, hides domestically within the discourses of civil law, development, and anti-terrorism. Between El Morro and Guaynabo, as the fortified slot-window restricts the view of the world, so does the figure of crime restrict our perspective myopically, masking histories of war, and normalizing them inconspicuously within the symbolic order of the carceral state.

The Prison in Hostile Territory

In the context of Puerto Rico, this slippage between imprisonment and war hides within the very jurisdiction that the Guaynabo prison performs—that of a colonizing state in what has often been hostile territory. In the wake of San Juan’s Spanish fortification, the genocidal destruction of much of the island’s Taíno people and the brutal import of enslaved West Africans, are centuries of both anti-colonial struggle for autonomy and the repression and criminalization of that struggle.

After the Spanish American War, as was the case in the Philippines, many regarded their “liberation” from Spain as merely a pivot—from fighting one occupier to fighting another. Puerto Rico’s subsequent history as a U.S. “possession” has been shaped by continued colonial exploitation, political disenfranchisement, and today’s imposition of neoliberal economic policies, resulting in the rise of independence movements, massacres, and uses of imprisonment.

One uprising in 1950 saw the imprisonment of over 100 of Puerto Rican Nationalist Party members. In the 1981 seditious conspiracy trial that would imprison members of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement for decades, defendants appealed to international law for recognition as prisoners of war, declaring they were “combatants in an anti-colonial war to free Puerto Rico from U.S. domination.” Today, despite the reach of U.S. political and financial institutions into Puerto Rico, the local Puerto Rican government has been denied the bankruptcy protection that fully enfranchised parts of the United States enjoy, while its residents remain similarly disenfranchised from the elections and legislative processes of the U.S. federal government that rules it.

While the Independence Movement’s members were facing their sentencing, the planning to build the Guaynabo prison would soon be under way by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, whose captive population had grown from 12,000 prisoners in 7 prisons in 1930 to over 45,000 prisoners in 54 prisons in 1981.1 The Guaynabo facility would be built on 118 acres of surplus land transferred to the BOP from the adjacent Fort Buchanan U.S. Military Installation, which itself was established during the Spanish American War (Louis Berger & Associates Inc., 1989).

An architectural record of this history is written in the translation of the slot-window’s fortification from castillo to prison, wherein twin colonial war-making functions can be seen: the guarding of its territories and the guarding of its captives; the martial and carceral looking of these windows bearing the same fingerprints of history.

A Transposition of Hidden Events

The roots of the carceral state lie within the same colonial partitioning of the world in which Puerto Rico became a Spanish and then U.S. possession. According to Walter Mignolo, Western modernity relied at its core upon a “hidden dimension of events, both in the sphere of economy and in the sphere of knowledge: the dispensability (or expendability) of human life and of life in general from the Industrial Revolution into the twenty-first century” (Mignolo, 2011, p. 6). Built upon the subordinated populations seen not as human but as instruments of colonial and capitalist accumulation, Mignolo asserts that “modernity came along with coloniality” (p. 6).Through an erasure similar to Scarry’s disavowal, this “hidden dimension” was regulated through “a structure of control and management of authority, economy, subjectivity, gender and sexual norms and relations . . . both in their internal conflicts and in their exploitation of labor and expropriation of land” (p. 8).

As colonial fortresses, castles, and missions were an architecture for extending colonial power outward, the prison fortress maintains this hidden dimension internally, its techniques and discourse producing and regulating its people-made-disposable. Following the same route that Aimé Césaire charts for us, showing the return of colonialism’s violence to the colonizers’ home countries (Césaire, 2001), following the dissolution of previous orders of mass exploitation, such as feudal subordination, chattel slavery, indentured servitude, and wage-based exploitation, a new regime of mass incarceration helped to transpose their “structure of controls” into modern criminological codes. Translating their statutes, customs, rituals, violence, social hierarchies, and the semblances of order they produce into the rhetoric and routines of law and order, the carceral state formalizes the “dispensability of human life” into an institution, the hidden dimensions of its events left out of its narrative, concealed within what Jacques Derrida calls “the mystical origins of [the state’s] authority” (Derrida, 1990).

More than Too Much, Incarceration En Masse

The phrase “mass incarceration,” which had for years been in circulation among specialists, activists, and reformers to describe the explosion of U.S. prison growth since the 1970s, entered into the commonplace vocabulary of pundits, politicians and foundations in the 2010s.2 The connotation of “mass” here is typically one of “excess,” of “too much” imprisonment. The notion of a “carceral state” has similarly been cast in the light of this quality of “too much,” as if the excesses of the prison have merely bled outside of itself and instituted carceral-like conditions throughout the state’s spaces in general.

It is a different thing, however, to consider mass incarceration in this broader historical frame, where “mass” means the institution of imprisonment on a modernized, industrial scale, holding with regularity masses of people for sentences that range on the scale of life itself. Such imprisonment begins with the emergence of the modern, industrializing nation-state and its attendant colonial dispossessions, where modern industrial capacities are coordinated with those of the modern state itself.

In this way, mass incarceration accompanies the emergence of the masses as a social and political force, as a subject of history and an image. Built at the intersection of the mass regimentation of space (the factory, school, barrack, asylum, hospital, the enclosures private property, and colonized spaces) and industrial time (the clock of the train and the factory), the form of mass incarceration accompanies the mass address of the printing press, mass cultural industries, the organization of bodies and gazes through mass spectacle, and the articulation of a mass political culture that crafts new nationalist and colonial imaginaries, wherein the notion of “the masses” teeters ideologically between the democratic mass and a mob (Williams, 1976).

Instead of a state with simply “too much” imprisonment, the carceral state emerges as a state whose very model of organization, whose political economy and cultural reproduction depend upon this mass scale of incarceration to manage and conceal its contradictions, inequities, and its productive relations. Its carceral regime does indeed reach out into multiple registers of public and private life and is indeed too much, but it does not exist to merely police the anomalies of its order nor to right ordinary imbalances of justice. It is there to structure the society at its foundation, fortifying its hidden dimensions, extracting its accumulations, and attributing meaning to the racial, class, and gendered hierarchies upon which its productive relations and political exclusions are organized.

Beyond the walls of the prison itself, its order hemorrhages out to the level of the state through the coordination of practices that form a prison industrial complex, including imprisonment, policing, and surveillance on a mass scale.3 Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes the depth of its reach as “. . . an infrastructural project of daunting complexity,” where, she continues, “[p]eople—uniformed and civilian—ideas, intellectuals, places, boosters, institutions, government agencies, agitators, histories, futures, accumulations of premature death—all of that is the prison industrial complex. Like the military industrial complex before it, [it] makes a way, it cuts a path through the landscape, like a canal in a flood surge, into which all and everything are swept” (Gilmore, 2011).

To allow “mass incarceration” to describe only “too much imprisonment” not only misses this complex of relations, it also plays into the carceral ideology that conceals the society’s hidden dimensions and the depth of their influence upon our immediate worlds. It keeps us from interrogating what the problem is with the prison in general, with what would be considered a “normal” amount of imprisonment.

In the U.S. context, where the earliest scale of mass incarceration would seem quite “normal” by today’s standards, its birth was clearly an invention of post-Emancipation social controls, included Black Codes, slave patrols, and plantations-turned-prisons, to which formally emancipated people were shipped back to continue to perform forced labor.4 From emancipation forward, a line of transpositions and disavowals can be drawn directly to today’s law and order movement, along which crime itself has been articulated as a “black” problem, seeing “the stigmatization of crime as ‘black’ and the masking of crime among whites as individual failure,” as Khalil Gibran Muhammad describes his notion of “racial criminalization” (Muhammad, 2010, p. 3). The culmination of this logic in the contemporary law and order movement came at the height of the civil rights movement, with that moment’s own white panic over black empowerment and enfranchisement, alongside the transposition of overtly racial and segregationist codes into the sanitized language of today’s “post-racial” disavowal.

As this same history can be elaborated intersectionally along the historical lines of gender, sexuality, class, culture, indigeneity and religion, to allow “mass incarceration” to refer only to an innocent institution run amok, or as one merely haunted by subjugating pasts rather than actively producing a subjugating present, disavows their continuing function and inoculates that function from critique. In place of this critique, the conventional myth of the prison as a humane and democratic institution remains undisturbed, reified in its myth that, in the terms of Jared Sexton and Elizabeth Lee, “displaces [the prison’s] racialization as an institution of black spatial containment and social control” (2006). It is in this very way that the policing, surveillance, and taking captive experienced by many as war-making on a daily basis come to appear publicly as ordinary law enforcement—the attributes of their injury disavowed, and any resistance to that warfare rendered as further crime in need of punishment.

Carceral Legibilities: Pattern, Calcification, and the Sensible Fabric of Experience

In the background of the carceral state and key to the disavowals it performs is also an aesthetic register that functions like a viscera. As any political and social regime is constructed in part through its visual and sensorial culture—which is not merely a mirror, wallpaper, nor window, but is generative—a carceral regime takes power through a choreography of meanings and staging of representations, ones that produce carceral legibilities and a carceral sense of order. Within them, the myths of law and order ideology calcify as a common sense, one that confuses our need for safety with the security regime of the state, as the mechanisms of the prison industrial complex settle into the normality of our spatial and social expectations.

James C. Scott offers one model for how we can understand carceral legibility, where in his Seeing Like a State he uses vision itself as a metaphor for the shaping of state knowledge and power, tracing attempts by the modern state to give the things of its territory “legibility and simplification,” so that they can be “seen” by the state and, therefore, be governable. “In each case,” he accounts, “officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored” (Scott, 2008, p. 2). Key to much of Scott’s work, however, has been his study of the inverse: the spaces into which power cannot see, in which its power is therefore vulnerable, porous, and subvertable. What comes with legibilities are of course illegibilities—what the state, on one hand, camouflages strategically from public view, classifying, scrambling, and leaving illegible, but also what people make illegible to the state, eluding its pathways of vision, remaining inscrutable, obstructing its ability to see, know, and control.

Considering this in relation to a carceral sense of order, Jacques Rancière offers a model for how such legibilities and illegibilities settle into the tissues of our perception and the politics of our spaces, assigning the subjects and objects of a carceral regime their “appropriate places.” In his account of aesthetics, Rancière speaks of the “sensible fabric of experience . . . modes of perception and regimes of emotion, categories that identify them, thought patterns that categorize and interpret them,” which, importantly, he claims “are entirely material conditions” (Rancière, 2014). In Rancière’s writing, “sensible” holds a double meaning, including “of the senses,” on one hand, and the way in which something comes “to make sense,” on the other, linking the sensual with the intelligible. He describes this linking at work in the production of our political spaces, in a “partitioning” and “distribution of the sensible,” which spatialize and give sense to the society’s hierarchies, inclusions, and exclusions, its empowerment and disenfranchisement, assigning their division a sense of logic within our experiential fabric (Rancière, Panagia, & Bowlby, 2001).

A carceral visual order is therefore made of a play of appearances and disappearances, sound and noise, movement and space, and a sense of things in and out of “their place.” As social relations, practices, and habits translate from previous raciological orders to the present, shaping the sensibilities and legibilities of our present-day aesthetic regime, the carceral order distributes hierarchized values of human life—preconceptions of intellectual and moral capacity, rights to space and freedom of movement, rights to health, happiness and authority, freedom of word, language, and sound—and partitions them into an overall sense of order and disorder.

Such racializing significations act materially, producing racially differentiated spaces, communities, and bodies, and the sense of which rules should apply (or not) to them. Consider the common example of two white boys fighting, whose parents are called to discuss their boys-will-be-boys behavior problem, versus two boys of color in the same type of fight, for whom the police are called to incapacitate their threat and criminality. Such divisions of perception, expectation, and response, woven in tropes and patterns of image, language, movement, story, genre, and sentiment, permeate the culture, calcifying in the presumable neutrality of law and the daily administrative demands of bureaucracies, government, schools, museums, and the so-called free market.

Stuart Hall (1978) locates this production of legibilities and racial semblance of order within the mass media’s representation of crime. In the case study analyzing a 1980s panic around muggings in England, Hall argues that a pattern of representations not only targeted individuals but accumulated into a figure of disorder—a crisis against which the larger social order could be organized and confirmed. “Crime,” writes Hall, “is ‘news’ because its treatment evokes threats to, but also reaffirms, the consensual morality of the society: a modern morality play takes place before us in which the ‘devil’ is both symbolically and physically cast out from the society by its guardians—the police and the judiciary” (Hall, 1978, p. 69).

Allan Sekula (1986) locates a similar process within the image bureaucracy of the modern police archive. In studying early applied photography, Sekula examines the racial and classed legibilities birthed by the mug shot, as it follows the intentions of the pseudo-sciences of phrenology and physiognomy and the evidence they sought to prove racial and class superiority. Buoyed by the presumed truth of photography, the identifications attempted through the mug shot would become the primary unit in building racialized and classed knowledge into the objectivity of the modern police archive itself (Sekula, 1986).

Moving from the camera to the prison, through its own production of legibilities, the prison acts not only as a means of physical containment but as a visual apparatus, investing the sensible fabric around us with its sense of order. It produces knowledge of things, but it also erases, conceals, renders unseeable what physically lies in plain sight. As with Scott’s “seeing” of the state, Sekula’s police photography and Hall’s news image, the prison’s legibilities disavow the injuries of history and the prison’s own effects, cleaving humanity and agency away from the imprisoned, reproducing their racial, class, and gendered caricatures. These carceral legibilities add up to a carceral visual order that corresponds to the larger neocolonial order it serves, producing peoples and their spaces as enemy and “other,” through a decontextualizing, alienating, and dehumanizing looking that occludes what is not of interest to a martial gaze.

In the body of the prison itself—its structure, space, and vision—there is an architectural record across which this visuality has developed, in which we can track the fingerprints of war and the othering, martial gaze that it stages. Framing others as enemies, targets, and threats, the slot-window threads the garitas of El Morro to the Guaynabo prison, showing one of the roots of mass incarceration within the fortress of war.

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile TerritoryClick to view larger

Figure 4. View through volcanic rocks at “Captain Jack’s Stronghold,” in what is now Lava Beds National Monument in Modoc and Siskiyou Counties, California, arranged as a fortification by Modoc warriors to fend off U.S. troops sent to remove these final holdouts before being displaced to Oklahoma in 1873. (By Ashley Hunt, 2016)

From the Castle to Penitentiary

As Virilio and Collins (1994) argue that the bunker is a defensive rather than stylistically derived architecture, the slot windows that link El Morro to Guaynabo share an antecedent for which there can be no original record, for it exists in any two objects between which a shielded body can see, throw, shoot, or fire something. Architecturally, this is formalized in walls of the earliest known fortresses, becoming the alternating merlons and crenels, or crenellations (Figure 5) that checker rooflines of Western castles as they emerge in the 10th century. The first-known fortress that also functioned as a full-time residence (Hourihane, 2012), this battlement trope of the castle remains one of the most iconic signifiers of warfare in our architectural record.

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile TerritoryClick to view larger

Figure 5. Illustration depicting the function of crenelation from Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle/Créneau.

(Source: Eugene, Viollet-le-Duc, Edition Bance-Morel from 1854 to 1868)

Similarly, only a few inches of opening are needed for an archer to send an arrow, and the vertical window known as the arrow slit window builds this logic into the castle’s wall. These arrow slits were often accompanied by a second, horizontal slit that crosses in its middle, forming the crosses we often see lining castle walls as something more than a decoration.

Also known as a ballistraria window—windows for the ballistic—a visit to the Tower of London demonstrates the direct link between warfare and imprisonment, as it functioned in the repurposing of the tower from a royal residence to a prison, as was the case with many castle towers throughout the medieval period. A castle’s main tower—its keep, or in French, donjon—was typically the most heavily fortified part of a castle, a safeguard should its outer defenses be breached. In the London Tower’s conversion, one can see in what is believed to have been the cell of Thomas More that its slit-shaped embattlement window served perfectly for an impassable prison window, as the donjon became a dungeon.

Just as castle keeps lent themselves easily to imprisonment, whole castles were also converted into prisons. One example is England’s Lancaster Castle, whose conversion to a prison began in 1196 (King, 1983). Lancaster would be used as a prison over eight centuries during which imprisonment and warfare were inextricably linked, while the slow and incremental growth toward mass incarceration evolved.

Rarely before the 19th and 20th centuries was imprisonment used with mass incarceration’s regularity, serving instead as short-term detention or for prisoners of war, not typically as punishment itself but to hold people awaiting corporal punishment, exile, or execution, more similar to the typical jail today, which holds people awaiting trial and people sentenced to short sentences. As incarceration itself emerged as a more regularized form of penalty in the modern period, especially with the rise of debt imprisonment, workhouses, and the transposition of premodern economic relations into modern institutions (Hager, 2015), imprisonment would overtake Lancaster Castle as its singular function, reflected in the change of its name to Lancaster Castle Jail, as it was called until its decommissioning in 2011.

The Penitentiary

Between El Morro and Guaynabo, a British architect who trained in the shadow of these histories to become a prolific builder of early U.S. prisons, John Haviland, designed what is considered the world’s first true penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1829. Inside its perimeter wall, his Eastern State Penitentiary introduced a prison made entirely of individual cells. Its model of a contemplative, solitary confinement, known as the “Pennsylvania model,” was meant to reform the soul through the practice of Christian penitence. Contemplative penitence had been modeled previously, as a redemptive form of punishment in medieval modes of monastic and ecclesiastical incarceration. Here it was was advanced as a reform to corporal punishment, dank castle dungeons, and industrially organized imprisonment (the “Auburn model”) by the Quaker philosophy that, like Haviland, had migrated from England to colonial Pennsylvania. Around this new model of prison interior, its exterior wall still possessed the architectural fortification of a medieval castle, including gothic towers with crenelated rooftops and walls scored by tall arrow slit windows.

Despite being announced as a reform, Eastern State would institute the very architecture that has grown the carceral state—its reformist and humanitarian logic making it look compatible with democracy, as it gave that reformist logic an architectural form to migrate and repeat around the world. Moreover, its model of isolation would serve as the permanent solitary confinement of today’s supermax prisons and secure housing units (SHUs), which, despite any reformist intentions of the time, are regarded by many as a standardized form of torture5 and are the target of repeated hunger strikes by prisoners around the United States.

In the cells of Eastern State, light would enter only through a skylight, offering a similar architectural security to that of the ballistraria, being out of the reach of a body. These windows, which bore fingerprints of the raised, clerestory windows and light wells that have choreographed rays of light in churches and temples at least as far back as Ancient Egypt,6 carried the discourse of that ancient temple: the “light of God” that would presumably cleanse the soul of the incapacitated and penitent prisoner.

It is interesting then that Haviland’s subsequent prison and jail projects would include three Egyptian Revival designs—The Tombs jail and courthouse in New York City, the New Jersey State Penitentiary in Trenton, and the Essex County Jail in Newark, where the imposing monumentality of his Eastern State design was rearticulated through Egyptian motifs of pylons, cornices, and columns.

Whether or not Haviland’s interest in the Egyptian was to reference an antecedent to this “light of God” or to reference more directly the punitive cell that should be “like a tomb” (Johnston, 2000), it is reasonable to believe that Haviland had an interest in communicating through his designs, announcing through the symbol of the prison’s edifice the promise and pain of punishment and the necessity of submitting to the law.

Writing on the forbidding redesign of London’s Newgate Prison in 1782, Haviland’s teacher, James Elmes, said it was “without doubt the most appropriate and correct design in the metropolis or perhaps in Europe” (Johnston, 1955, p. 517). Newgate had been one of the first prisons built exclusively as a prison, opened in 1188 upon one of the fortified city gates (“New Gate”) of London’s Roman city wall. Elmes clarifies his support for its intimidating redesign, explaining, “for no one viewing this edifice can possibly mistake it for anything but a gaol, the openings as small as convenient, and the whole external aspect made as gloomy and melancholy as possible” (Johnston, 1955, p. 517).

The Prison’s Image, from External to Internal Enemies

Where the architectural fortifications that detail the Lancaster Castle Jail were, in Virilio and Collins’s terms, the direct expression of the military techniques they were built to enable, by the time of Newgate’s remodel, the warfare of the prison was changing from one against external enemies to the management of its internal conflicts. In Europe, these conflicts arose from the giving way of feudal orders to an emerging capitalism, populations made landless by the privatization of land through enclosure movements, targeted through new criminalization schemes and migrating into its cities (Linebaugh, 1992). In the United States, similar shifts were sparked by the breakdown of its chattel slavery order, mass immigration, the chaos and dispossessions of its frontier expansion, and the forced removals and institutionalization of First Nations (Rothman, 1971). In both cases, the sovereign had moved from their castle fortress to the statehouse, and the hostiles of their internal conflicts were moved into the prisons of their former fortresses.

The Newgate reconstruction thus embodies an important pivot in the history of penal architecture as it would migrate to the United States under Haviland, where the utilitarian qualities of its fortress techniques become theatrical, decorative, and symbolic gestures, the edifice becoming a public image that narrates its social purpose. In his account of Newgate, Harold D. Kalman describes its style as “architecture parlante,” a kind of narrative architecture, “which was expected to tell both the purpose and the character of a building” (1969).

In dialogue with both the principle of the sublime, which was espoused and applied to architecture by Edmund Burke (1757), and the carceral imaginary expressed in the unrealized prison designs of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the affect of the prison was meant to be one of terror. “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger . . . whatever is in any sort terrible,” writes Burke, “is a source of the sublime,” to where it “seems to have required immense force and labour to effect it,” and where it inspires “the idea of bodily pain, in all the modes and degrees of labour, pain, anguish, [and] torment” (Burke, 1757, pt i, sec vii).

Jacques-François Blondel and Pierre Patte lectured at that same time about his notion of “Architecture Terrible,” where for prisons he advocated the direct signifiers of warfare, calling for powerful expression, seeming to announce an outer order, the security of the inside of the building a real and apparent solidity, large protrusions and deep indentations of military buildings, bastions, towers and steep ditches, with almost no openings in the facades, but high and thick walls. For Blondel and Patte, a terrifying architecture would announce from without the chaos of the lives of the men detained within, and, altogether the violence required for the officials to keep them in chains (1771, original French passage p. 426).

This decoupling of the symbolic function of prison architecture from its practical function is seen in the ease with which Haviland moved between prison styles, not least in the opening of his final prison design in 1851. Returning to the neo-Gothic language of Eastern State and Missouri State Penitentiary, he modeled the Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County Prison after England’s Lancaster Castle Jail (County of Lancaster, PA, 2016).

Perhaps Haviland’s architectural quotation here was a tribute, a game of place-making between the Lancasters of England and Pennsylvania. Perhaps it was personal, referencing Haviland’s own migration route from England to the U.S., or political, if Haviland knew that one of the more famous prisoners of England’s Lancaster Castle Jail had been George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement itself, whose reforms had shaped the very penitentiary model that Haviland had championed and which prefigured today’s supermax. Either way, we see here an important bridge between the military discourse of El Morro and the carceral discourse of Guaynabo—a semiotic function unmoored from its security function. With the direction of its warfare inward, toward its internal conflicts, Haviland’s Lancaster prison would serve this newer modality of warfare against the internally excluded, dispossessed, and resistant.

This was spoken most clearly in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania prison’s 1972 expansion, where in its massive reconstruction, Haviland’s original towers and entry gate would be left as but an iconic fragment. Towering over Haviland’s original, neo-Gothic façade, there now stands behind it an altogether different prison structure—seven stories of wall and window that grew its original prisoner capacity to seven times its original size, from 160 prisoners in 1852 to its current capacity of 1,100. This prison built on top of a prison wears the visual grammar of many post-war U.S. prisons, built to accommodate a similar rate of growth, as post-war state repression met the period’s growing dissident and popular movements. As if to disguise the failures of universal democracy that these movements protested at home from the image of democracy it claimed abroad in the theater of the Cold War, post-war prisons were effaced of the signifiers of punishment altogether, designed to look exactly like the kind of spaces that communities of color and poor communities would find themselves excluded—a corporate office, a bank building, a hospital or university.

Equipped inside with new technological means of captivity, and with an expanded range of services that contemporary movements for prison reform have continued to bring in order to humanize the prison and make it “correctional”—medical, psychological, educational, vocational—their combined discourse would empower the largest prison expansion in history, from 264,345 prisoners in 1945 to 2,224,400 in 2014. Repeating and enabling the failures of democracy at large, the expansion of correctional services and the softening of prison practices still failed to address the dominant political oppression that the prison sustains. On the prison rebellions that ricocheted between the United States and Europe during the early the 1970s, Michel Foucault (1977, p. 30) wrote:

They were revolts against an entire state of physical misery . . . against cold, suffocation and overcrowding, against decrepit walls, hunger, physical maltreatment. But they were also revolts against model prisons, tran­quillizers, isolation, the medical or educational services . . . against the obsolete, but also against comfort; against the warders, but also against the psychiatrists . . . In fact, they were revolts, at the level of the body, against the very body of the prison.

A Martial Law and Order

[T]he imperial partition of Africa . . . did not replace the past of Africa with the past of Western Europe. And thus in South America . . . did not erase the energy, force, and memories of the Indian past, nor have memories of communities of African descent in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and the insular Caribbean been erased” (Mignolo, 2011, p. 5).

Behind these histories and the architectural record that charts them, Mignolo reminds us here that despite the overwhelming violence of the colonial ordering of the world, such efforts were never totalizing, as was evidenced by the 20th century’s many anti-colonial movements, struggles for self-determination and independence, which had survived and rose up against it. Accordingly, at the time of the Pennsylvania Lancaster’s 1972 expansion, decades of anti-colonial revolution were inspiring companions in the United States and other colonizer nations, in the form of social movements against racism, patriarchy, homophobia, genocide, capitalism, poverty, and war. As the United States conducted external war in Vietnam and on other neocolonial fronts of the Cold War, it waged low-intensity and counterinsurgency warfare in its own streets and homes, taking lives and filling prisons. But as the explicit racism and violence of colonial orders had become less and less acceptable within overt political culture, its warfare required a new strata of meanings—a campaign of re-significations—through which to act and manufacture popular support. This meant a new dependency on the language of crime and disorder, casting the rebellion, resistance, and survival strategies of these movements’ constituents as criminal. This re-articulation of warfare as crime control, with the prison as its primary institutional component, was therefore accompanied by the semiotic erasure of warfare from its architecture, and of prison growth more generally from the land- and cityscape, as was typified by the Lancaster jail.

It is here that a key aspect of today’s carceral visuality takes shape, as a criminalizing gaze that sees difference and dissent as crime, its counterinsurgency warfare as law enforcement, its troops disguised as police, and the people it controls as disorder.

What the United States made clear at this moment is that there is little more threatening to a white racial order than liberated and valued bodies of color, than liberated female and queer bodies to a patriarchal order, or unified, unintimidated workers to capitalist relations of production. In this carceral regime, such “threatening” bodies appear as disorder in at least three ways: symbolically, to the repressive gaze for whom they are out of their “proper place” of subordination and dejection, political-economically, as a loss of capital and privilege to those who profited from their exclusion, and in identity, for those whose sense of supremacy was threatened by the assertion of equality. Framed as such disorder within a carceral imaginary, the regulation, apprehension, containment, physical punishment and disappearance—including the erasure of their ideas, perspectives and values—becomes normalized as a feature of daily life.

Thus it is at the height of these movements and the civil rights movement in particular that we see the current U.S. prison boom take shape, as the law and order movement reconstituted to repress and erase it. In ways that are unfortunately still present today, its popular dissent and empowerment are cast as criminality, the “audacity” of its cultural pride is cast as a desire to dominate, its protest is cast as scofflaw, irrational and law-breaking riots (today we can add the casting as terrorism), while police are mobilized into communities with military technology recycled from the United States’ ongoing wars.

A key to the re-articulations of the law and order movement was the ideological decoupling of “crime” from what had been previously understood as crime’s “root causes,” disavowing the understanding of crime as an expression of larger social conditions. This decoupling is recalled famously in Richard Nixon’s statement: “Doubling the conviction rate in this country would do more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for [Hubert] Humphrey’s war on poverty” (Time Magazine, 1968, p. 34), and a rich body of literature exists on this shift, embodied conspicuously by the figures of the new conservative political movement, which drew its strength from animus directed at these upstarts against the order, and less conspicuously by liberal figures who declared “war on crime” and oversaw equally the growth of the carceral state.7

Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) accounts for the structural underpinnings of this moment in the shifting structure of the U.S. economy from its post-war industrial peak to its late capitalist deindustrialization, at the same time as these re-significations were taking hold. Writing on the intersection of such perceptions of “disorder” and the surpluses of state, military, and industrial capacity that accompanied deindustrialization and the idling of war-making abroad, Gilmore describes a moment of “surplus state capacity.” She describes this capacity as “a result of the difference between what states can do technically and what they can do politically.” “Technical capacity,” she warns, “does not disappear even when certain practices lose legitimacy in the eyes of voters, or capitalists, or other key interests.” It was the combination of this surplus with both “[t]he successful political promotion of fear of crime” and “the ideological legitimacy of the US state as the institution responsible for defense at all levels” that would therefore allow California, in her example, to enter into an unprecedented binge of prison construction, containing the ongoing crisis in racial, gender, and sexual order (Gilmore, 2007, p. 113).

As this same deindustrialization hobbled formerly working-class communities throughout the United States, the science of criminology would also incorporate these re-articulations. It would supply the language and arguments that law enforcement, but also politicians, developers, media, and civic leaders, would use to frame a seemingly limitless range of social problems as problems for law enforcement, including addiction, homelessness, mental health, failures in education and employment markets. In 1982, criminologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling authored a short paper that also capitalized on public anxieties about disorder, titled “Broken Windows,” extending this to the level of the visual. Advancing the theory that signs of disorder and neglect—such as broken windows in abandoned buildings—lead to greater acts of crime, their theory supplied a rationale for the instensification of the war on crime. While claiming to argue on behalf of poor communities, their theory laid the intellectual groundwork for police to go deeper into those neighborhoods and target behaviors that would otherwise seem less urgent or dangerous, or as predictable responses to systemic unemployment and economic abandonment. This became the doctrine that would author the zero tolerance and stop-and-frisk policing regimes, the results of which continue to resemble colonial policing regimes, like South Africa’s apartheid pass laws or the United States’ fugitive slave laws. But the most lasting achievement of Wilson and Kelling’s short essay may be their scrambling of the signifying codes of civil rights and racial policing into one another, rationalizing racial policing as if it was a civil rights protection.

In both the U.S. public’s receptiveness to this “tough-on-crime” political movement and the ease with which the broken windows doctrine was adopted lies a persistent semblance of previous racial orders—a “Jim Crow Modernity,” in Sarah Haley’s (2016) terms, a “Radioactive Colonialism” for Winnona LaDuke and Ward Churchill (1986)— where the preservation of that order makes any amount of policing and violence and any scale of imprisonment seem reasonable.

Set against the political-economic shifts described by Gilmore, the reinvestment of state capacity into the form of the prison and in warfare technology transferred to urban and suburban police, we can see the fingerprints of warfare track from the repression of anti-colonial struggle through to the carceral state—a history that in the 2000s overflowed its day-to-day camouflage through the militarized policing of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the similarly militarized state response to protest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown. In this sense, a carceral visuality can be understood as belonging to a martial order, to an aesthetics of counterinsurgency.

Counterinsurgent Aesthetics and the Fingerprints of War

As with the newer addition to the Lancaster County Prison, the visual gesture of the contemporary prison is no longer an outward, “parlant” architecture that consciously explains its purpose. Instead, its visual codes enact a concealment and erasure that has accompanied a near 800% growth in imprisonment in the decades since 1945—disguised within cityscapes as common corporate-style buildings or set inconspicuously within bucolic landscapes outside of the city’s view altogether.

Instead of a failure to signify, however, this erasure can be read as it charts the economic shifts of late capitalism that Gilmore shows us underwriting today’s prison growth, in which the architecture is that of the warehouse, the big-box store, the industrial shipping and distribution center. Built of prefabricated cells and pods that stack and tie together through a modular, “just-in-time” architectural economy, they serve the growing scale of mass incarceration that, in a post–civil rights era, must not look like the subordination of enemies but like the humane penal reform of equals—or perhaps rendered invisible altogether, the warfare they perform remaining inconspicuous (ACLU, 2014).

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile TerritoryClick to view larger

Figure 6. “Jail Hill” of the Marin Couty Civic Center. (By Ashley Hunt, 2016)

This grammar is not consistent across all the many differences of contemporary prison design, but the most iconic example would be the Marin County Jail, attached to the Frank Lloyd Wright Marin County Civic Center (Figure 6), whose 1994 expansion would bury its jail underground, erasing the fact of incarceration from the Civic Center’s larger representation of civic life. We could also look to examples of masquerade, such as the 1990s redesign of the Fayette County Detention Center in Lexington, Kentucky (Figure 7), re-articulated to resemble a racing horse farm, or to the 1990s redesign of the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California, whose plain walls, sliced by endless ballistrarias, hide behind a fortifying rampart whose naturalized flora make it appear continuous with the undeveloped hillsides that slope up behind the jail (Figure 8).

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile TerritoryClick to view larger

Figure 7. The Lexington-Fayette County Jail, Lexington, Kentucky. (By Ashley Hunt, 2015)

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile TerritoryClick to view larger

Figure 8. The Santa Rita County Jail, Dublin County, California. (By Ashley Hunt, 2015)

The most unified U.S. prison vocabulary today is that of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to which the prison in Guaynabo belongs. Stripped of overt signifiers of castle and fortress, their facades do not narrate their carceral purpose, but they do still bear the fingerprints of war. The overwhelming scale of their shear edifices possess the monumentality of U.S. federal architecture generally, an “Architecture Terrible” by Blondel and Patte’s definition in their massive scale, their weight and geometry. From Guaynabo to Los Angeles to Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle-Tacoma, and beyond, their structures evoke the severe verticality of early Norman castles, such as Norwich Castle, the Chateau de Falaise in Normandy, or Hedingham Castle in Essex, which itself was used as a prison.

And as with almost all the carceral facilities one will find, even when sitting anonymously among the skyline or hidden along a rural horizon, the fingerprint of war is there within the ballistraria window—remaining the most indispensable architectural feature throughout. Belying its carceral practicality, its indispensibility marks a memory of the warfare from which the modern prison evolved, as an architectural pivot point around which the fortress and bunker were turned inside out.

More importantly, this memory is marked in the bodies that its windows withhold, a scale of bodies that makes a farce of any real claim to safety or justice. This scale speaks far more honestly of the vast tracks of communities left jobless, impoverished, and scarred by late capitalist deindustrialization, its capital flight and political-economic abandonment, its destruction of welfare state institutions and unions, and the accumulations of wealth and power that the prison industrial complex ensures.

The camouflage of the prison is also the camouflage of this persistent dispossession and the warfare that maintains it in the language of law and order. The prison today is no less filled with bodies on the edge of revolt than were the territories its antecedents were built to keep out—as an institution whose history of insurgency has become one of permanent counterinsurgency.

Arriving at the Prison in the Present

After the jurisdiction considers the image and behavior it desires in the jail, it is essential that its decisions be communicated to the design team. Adjectives should be used to describe the desired appearance of the new jail, or reference should be made to other buildings that look the way that is wanted. Here are some pairs of adjectives from which to choose:

  • open — closed

  • spacious — confined

  • controlled — free

  • warm — cold

  • welcoming — rejecting

  • minimal — adequate — generous

  • light, bright — dark, dim

  • colorful — plain

  • soft — hard

  • friendly — unfriendly

  • safe — dangerous

  • caring — indifferent.

Jail Design Guide: A Resource for Small and Medium-Sized Jails (Kimme, 1998, pp. 3–18).

A critique of using a visual analysis for political things might be that such an analysis can “aestheticize,” as in the conventional hierarchy between thinking and feeling. That same critique would see formal thinking as a depoliticizing kind of thing, confusing aesthetic with anesthetic—an anesthetization of our critical capacities by tricking us with beauty, abstraction, sensation, and the illusory play of appearance. But Yvonne Rainer’s (2006) assertion that “feelings are facts” teaches us that feeling also belongs to thinking, where an understanding of cognition as only cerebral—rather than corporeal and affective as well—is itself a gendered or patriarchal understanding. In a different way, Stuart Hall teaches us that images and their significations have concrete effects in the production and reproduction of our world, as they shape the perceptions and meanings that organize politics, culture, identity, and knowledge. Studying the histories of forms materially—the material discourses through which forms have developed, have been argued and contemplated, copied and undermined, fortified and destroyed—is to look to how forms translate over time and space in relation to material processes, enabling and, indeed, concealing them.

Through the figure of a fortress’s battlement window, we have traced a genealogy of the prison as it extends from the castle to the contemporary prison, where architecture and the visibility of the prison in public tells us something about how it functions within the political economies of history. If we dig further into the functioning of the prison itself however, and work back out from the day-to-day structuring of sight within it, we could also ask: “How does the prison see?”

In the permanent counterinsurgency of the contemporary prison, we can trace these dimensions of form—both functional and symbolic—through the registers of vision and visuality. Its “vision” refers here to optical sight: the physical organization of light as it comes into an eye, a lens, through a window. Its “visuality” refers to the combination of what is physically visible and the ways we are trained to see and perceive culturally, along with the politics of how visibility is staged. It is within visuality that form encounters order, where the senses come to make sense of what strikes them, in Rancière’s terms.

To ask how a prison “sees” is therefore to inquire into its vision and its visuality together: how a prison organizes vision architecturally and how that relates to the administration of the prison technocratically; the legibilities and illegibilities it stages and the meanings that they generate, from identity to justice to violence; and how these proliferate outward into the visuality and meanings of the larger society, as carceral legibilities and a carceral sense of order.

The Vision of the Prison: Registers of Legibility, Inside to Out

If the perceptions provided by the fabric of a building take place within and between those who use it, and against those whose body it is used, then the prison’s perspective is always manifold, including the warden’s perspective, the guard’s perspective, and the prisoner’s perspective. It also includes the social service worker’s perspective, the educator’s perspective, the family member’s perspective, the medical worker’s perspective, the lawyers’ and bondmen’s perspective, the executioner’s perspective, the politician’s perspective, the perspectives of the witness, the neighbors and surrounding community, and the commuter who passes by, aware or unaware of what they see. Each possesses a different physical and psychological orientation to the prison, and thus to the partitioning of sensibility and the meanings that will emerge publicly and privately from within it.

Technical Vision

Concepts of appearance and character must be derived from, and intertwined with, concepts of operations and security.

Jail Design Guide: A Resource for Small and Medium-Sized Jails (Kimme, 1998, pp. 3–18).

The internal structure of the prison begins with the careful staging of vision, in, around, and throughout its structures, accounting for how it sees technically. This technical vision is inseparable from how it manages, regulates, and polices the people it holds technocratically. The most iconic device in this regard, derived from the castle and fortress turret, is the guard tower that looks down to surveil, seeing bodies from above to manage and, if unmanageable, make a target of deadly force. This same gaze peers through the windows of control towers and fortified doors into cells and dormitories, bathrooms and yards, through reinforced glass, and down the sightlines of corridors. The floors of some prison’s labyrinthine corridors are lined with color-coded lines that match other color codes: the color-coding of prisoners’ uniforms according to their classification; color-coded destinations—the infirmary, work, visitation, or an office. They facilitate an impersonal control of the patterns of prisoners’ movement, keeping them within a clear visual order.8 In addition to colors, as the ballastraria window suggests, the prison is a compound geometry of measurements, its segregations and control parsed out into minimum and maximum measurements: movement, light, body scale, the size of a writing surface, occupancy, permissible or contraband objects, distance from a guard.

Across these techniques, the partition of inside and out is present within the prison before we even get to its perimeter, as the prison is already divided into its spaces of custody and non-custody. Outside the spaces of custody are free spaces—largely administrative offices where the non-imprisoned move freely—as well as the spaces “out of bounds,” where prisoners are forbidden to trespass. Out of bounds, prisoners immediately become targets, escapees, bodies out of place—where the legal codes that constitute the prison allow for the killing of people. This is the threshold where the deadly force that implicitly structures the entire building becomes explicit—the sovereign power that ultimately underlies all relationships between citizens, as it is evidenced by the state of emergency.9

In the prison, the thresholds between these secure spaces and their outsides are marked throughout by warning signs, formal and informal, a repertoire of representations whose symbolizing helps to perform confinement as much as cinderblock walls and metal fences. Along with metal detectors, scanners, and other security devices, these signs are reminders, ritualizing the prison’s authority and subordination within its everyday operation, communicating to prisoners, families, and visitors the bareness of the life to which everyone in this space is reduced and the force, authority, and agency with which violence against their life can be exercised.

Having shed the skin of the fortress, castle, and dungeon from which the modern prison has derived, many of the techniques of control that order these thresholds and structure a jailer’s perception are now digital and disembodied. This allows a decentralization of control across spaces, enabled by surveillance cameras and sensors, which are then re-centralized through electronic image and data processing. Their operators increasingly possess access to the time travel of digital recording and playback, to spatial and biological quantification. Minimizing the blind spots that were once considered a geometrical problem, their panoptic fantasy is limited still by the time and vision of the prison worker who processes them and could never monitor nor read all that flashes before them. Like the architectural Panopticon before it,10 the fantasy here is to centralize every corner into a singular point of view—to immobilize by sight and knowledge as well as by force. Together they render one of the prison’s primary legibilities: figures who are manageable and malleable, or, in Foucault’s terms, “docile subjects.”

To see like a prison is therefore to see from a tower, to see bodies as targets, as patterns and movement in and out of order, and with the sight of lethal power. From inside to its outside, the prison’s angles of vision, boundaries of space, and patterns of in and out of place migrate—forms that replicate in the policing of communities under suspicion. These are the visual and spatial principles in the techniques of racial orders: their surveillance, ghettoization, policing, and lethal force, backed here by the racial subtexts of the post–Civil Rights law and order movement, its broken windows doctrine, and its zero tolerance offspring.

Social Vision: Seeing Subjects

While the prison’s physical and visual order produces legibilities for its technocratic organization, it also produces legibilities on the level of the subject itself. The orderly or disorderly body that might be a target is also a name, an identity—an identity the prison assigns, organizes, and controls. The prison’s subjects are produced not only through penal and criminological discourse but through the medical, gender, racial, psychological, architectural, and religious discourses that also govern the prison. Guarding the thresholds of free and unfree space are also its civilian workers, subjects who find identity and livelihood in the incarceration of others, who look for meaning in the act of imprisonment, internalize carceral understandings as to why everyone is there, or, at other times, become dissidents against the system they see the prison maintaining, and either way, their understandings working outward into the culture of their town.

Whereas the invention of the medieval castle was that it was a residence as well as a fortress, the prison is structured as a small city, including what would elsewhere be city utilities—power, water, and waste disposal utilities—with its own workforce and division of labor, social hierarchies, roles, and economies into which prisoners are interpelated. Within it, most prisoners are also workers, fulfilling the prison’s daily maintenance and organizational functions, while prisoners are required by law to have access to all of the basic human services and human rights that they would have access to outside the prison.

But possessing these rights in theory is not the same thing as having them fulfilled, and each one offers an additional medium through which the prisoner can be regulated and deprived, restricted punitively, used to coerce and subordinate. Each interface produces knowledge of the prisoner, assigning them name and place within the prison’s discourse, where biopolitically—through their very biological and social reproduction, including their physical health, sexuality, safety, and sense of self—each prisoner is invested with the carceral power of the institution’s regime in order to survive.

At each step of its discourse, people are rendered legible, produced as carceral subjects, made to respond and account, appear and identify according to the ways the regime assesses, classifies, segregates, coordinates, punishes, reforms, moves, and assigns security levels. And it is in the latter—the security assessment—where the prison speculates and legislates politically about the nature of dangerousness and threats, where the greater the threat it can project onto prisoners, the better it places its violence, budgets, and growth beyond question.

In these ways, in addition to how the prison sees physically and technically, it also sees ideologically, producing knowledge, knowable subjects, and ways of seeing others within the larger society. This knowledge is productive of the larger field of carceral beliefs that the prison sits within and which the discipline of criminology theorizes, organizes, scripts, and distributes, wherein the mythos of the prison as just punishment overwrites the hidden dimensions of history that it maintains.

Criminological Vision in the Carceral State

As the study of crime, criminological vision is almost unavoidably myopic, mistaking acts and patterns of “crime” as isolated things, decontextualized from what it doesn’t know how to see or is designed to disavow, and taking “crime” for granted as a reified thing that its discipline relies upon. With the exception of theorists interested in the social and political history of the idea of crime itself, the notion of crime remains unquestioned—the burden of proof replaces the burden of history, and the individuated image of the convicted serves circularly as its evidence.

For Biko Agozino and Stephen Pfohl (2003), it is impossible to untangle Western criminology from the imperialism that underwrote modernity, as another science that was organized to erase the brutal crimes of colonial regimes. W. E. B. Du Bois (1935) writes of criminology as one of the sciences invested with the power of the ruling class, who employ the sciences in the service of lending objectivity to the politics of their ruling status.

In its workings today, Judah Schept (2015) looks to the circulation of this knowledge as it constitutes a closed system of objects, logics and beliefs, which he calls a “carceral epistemology.” “Criminology,” he writes, “helps construct the very concepts it purports to study . . . and then it reifies those concepts by subjecting them to a discourse of scientific study . . . [where] practitioners of criminal justice . . . rely upon criminological knowledge to legitimize their work while also providing criminology with its subjects of study” (Schept, 2015). By thinking from within this epistemology and never questioning the system at its core, even well-intentioned reforms often grow and strengthen that system, where, in the contemporary city, the logic of reform embeds the prison further into the reinvention and gentrification of cities, within what Schept calls the “neoliberal logic of carceral expansion.”

At each step of the prison’s organization and its broader social influence, we can find the fingerprint such carceral epistemology, taking the shape of a law enforcement utopia, in which all can be counted, controlled, and held within its proper place. Just as it constitutes a racializing hierarchy, expressed as a visual territory of inside and out, fugitive and guard, dreamt by the jailers, built into architecture, and spatialized through choreographies and language, so too does it reshape and constitute the city at large.

Framed within this dystopic utopia, the complex social relations and contradictions from which each prisoner comes are left illegible. The rejection of crime’s “root causes” is individualized as a disavowal of context and history. Prisoners are therefore rendered legible only as hysterical constructions that, in turn, rationalize their own punishment: the prisoner who revolts against abuse is presented as defiant and assaultive; the prisoners driven mad by the total isolation of a supermax have their psychological symptoms used to argue for more isolation; women are imprisoned for defending themselves against patriarchal violence; people jailed for turning in drug or sex work economies are stigmatized and pushed farther out from “legitimate” work; while whole communities are profiled, their social conditions criminalized, and their rebellions reduced to an irrational and malicious destructiveness.

As the spatial tropes of the prison translate its technical security regime outward into the control of communities, so does this ideological production travel, generalizing carceral subjectivities to those communities’ overall character, and, as in Schept’s example, making their control and erasure a condition of cities’ “redevelopment,” smoothing the way of the displacement of the poor.

This same ideology that rationalizes the displacements of contemporary gentrification and the gutting of services positions people as scapegoats for the system’s own problems, allowing the animus of racism in a so-called “post-racial society” to rampage in the masquerade of “personal responsibility,” morality, corruption, citizenship and dangerousness. Projecting an instrumental play of legibilities, the prison radiates outward through the culture—as a symbolic screen between inside and out, here and there, them and us, with “them” cast as a “devil” against whom the mainstream “self” gets defined.

To the Body Made to Not Mean Comes the Violence That Fails to Mean

This instrumental legibility is only possible, however, because of a greater legibility that is already withheld, rendering the humanity of carceral subjects illegible. Thus, the prison is not only an institution that acts after, but also before—where rather than responding to crimes in isolation, the prison acts as one in a series of continuous institutions that produce and manage a society’s subordinated classes at large. This functions not merely by criminalizing people but as a euphemism, wherein “criminal” stands in for a fundamentally different kind of person, if as a person at all. We find this not only within the theories of modern criminology but in producing the categories of both the enemies of war, on one hand, and of slaves, on the other. In this way, the dispensability and exploitability that Mignolo (2011) explains as necessary to coloniality and modernity alike requires that groups of people signify as less-than-fully-human beings—before they become formal suspects in a crime, the vast majority of suspects have already found that their lives have been prevented from meaning as fully and dimensionally as human life. Preparing the way for the denial of enfranchisement and freedom, it allows the violence that subjugates to fail to register as violence.

Although the violence against the body of an enslaved person is a part of the force and ritual of their enslavement (Hartman, 1997), the failure of both that person and the violence against them to mean can be understood through the social death that Orlando Patterson (1982) calls a key “constitutive element” of any regime of slavery. The “socially dead” for Patterson is one who is not incorporated, enfranchised nor assimilated into the society’s social identity, a “genealogical isolate” denied “natality as well as honor and power,” transforming the person into “symbolic instruments” (p. 46).

“Unlike other persons, the slave [alienated from their history] who reached back for the past” of their own heritage meant “struggling with and penetrating the iron curtain of the master, his community, his laws, his policemen or patrollers, and his heritage” (p. 5). The slave, Patterson contends, is thus formalized within an “institutionalized marginality,” where all meaning of its life and person must find meaning and signify only through the master, who “mediated between the socially dead and the socially alive” (p. 46).

Against the belief that slavery is an order left to the dustbin of premodern history, the most obvious pivot from its more conspicuous history to the present in the United States lies within the modern transposition of chattel slavery—from the Three-Fifths Compromise of the U.S. Constitution to the penal slavery instituted by its 13th Amendment. While abolishing slavery on the surface, the 13th Amendment moved it into the prison, abolishing slavery in all cases “except as a punishment for crime.” Instead of subordination coming as a condition of birth, this maintains enslavement by transposing their subordination to the indictment, to the suspicion, conviction, and assignment of guilt.

Judith Butler (2005) presents the play of legibly and illegibly human in the scene of judgment itself. In the moment that someone from “an established system of justice” demands we account for ourselves in relation to an accusation or crime, a fullness of our person outside the frame of that accusation is foreclosed. Speaking to that which is left illegible—or which fails to mean in the present—she cites Theodor Adorno’s caution “against the error to be found . . . when the ‘I’ becomes understood . . . detached from its social and historical conditions” (Butler, 2005, p. 7). For the enslaved person, this foreclosure comes in the ritual of their subordination, which transposed into a carceral order, is elaborated into criminal codes and statutes and ritualized through arrest and conviction.11

Regardless of this transposition, however, Patterson (1982) points to the persistent fingerprints of war when he states, “the most distinctive attribute of the slave’s powerlessness . . . was that it almost always originated (or was conceived as having originated) as a substitute for death . . . a substitute for death in war . . . punishment for some capital offense. . . .” It was a “conditional commutation,” he continues, for “the execution was suspended only as long as the slave acquiesced in [their] powerlessness” (p. 5). This conditional commutation can remind us of the presumption of guilt given the carceral subject at the time of arrest, whether inside or outside of the prison, shown most starkly by the easy death that law enforcement brings to the non-compliant and compliant alike of subordinated communities—the death that lurks at the edges of the carceral state for those who do not acquiesce.12

David Marriott locates such conditions of social death in the lives of subordinated people generally, and in the violence and death against black bodies in particular. Marriott describes the failure “black death” to signify with the full meaning of human death, where black life itself has been rendered already meaningless. He writes of “a legacy in which death is nothing . . . neither a passage nor a journey, but simply the arbitrary visitation of a catastrophic violence . . . a death that cannot ever die because it depends on the total degradation and disavowal of black life. . . . This is no longer death but a deathliness that cannot be . . . brought into meaning.”

Butler’s (2009) writing offers a further connection to the dehumanization of war when she extends this foreclosure of meaning to a partitioning between the grievable and ungrievable “in times of war.” Mirroring the denial of the enslaved person their full human meaning, Butler asks us to consider in war, “whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable,” where “war [divides] populations into those who are grievable and those who are not. An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all” (Butler, 2009, p. 38).

Today, a geography of such ungrievability can be traced along the wakes of modernity’s colonialisms, in the spaces of its genocides and slavery, in which this erasure of human value has made wars of imperialist expansion appear heroic, justified, and as the pursuit of peace, stability, freedom, and order. The unaccountable violence made possible by the body rendered socially dead, enabled and pardoned by its illegibility and ungrievability, is an indispensible concept within war, slavery, and coloniality alike, a “symbolic instrument” that conceals their mutual “hidden dimensions.” The reliance upon this concept by these prefigures of the carceral state muddies the neat separation of civil and martial order, as both contribute to a carceral order.

The Warehouse

This is, as a category defined at the global level by refugee/economic migrants stranded outside the gates of the rich countries, as the postcolonial variant of Fanon’s category of les damnés—with this category in the United States coming to comprise the criminalized majority Black and dark-skinned Latino inner-city males now made to man the rapidly expanding prison industrial complex, together with their female peers—the kicked-about Welfare Moms—with both being part of the ever-expanding global, transracial category of the homeless/the jobless, the semi-jobless, the criminalized drug-offending prison population.

—Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument” (2003, p. 261)

In a largely deindustrialized carceral state like the United States in 2016, the relationship between mass incarceration and slavery is, therefore, not a metaphor nor analogy, even if it doesn’t always look like the slavery we think we know. While there is certainly free and coerced labor extracted in today’s prisons—from private industries to the basic maintenance labor relied upon by each miniature city of a prison’s operation—the central condition of today’s deindustrialized mass incarceration is one of warehousing, largely the warehousing of the great pool of surplus labor who’ve lost their structural place in the economy (Irwin, 2004; Williams, 2015).

As with Patterson’s erasure of heritage and social ties in the slave-as-“genealogical isolate,” the economy of this warehousing is sustained by the racialized perception of bodies seen to have no meaningful future, no meaningful heritage, no human relationships to return to, no greater purpose to fulfill. Rather than providing forced labor per se, what the carceral regime sustains is slavery’s category of a meaninglessness subject—Patterson’s “symbolic object”—marked ritually by the physical scars of the system but also by their rap sheet, felony records, carceral identities, and traumas, against whom injury and violence do not read as violence but are, instead, ordered, collected, and warehoused as contemporary accumulations.

As the injury that can, in Scarry’s (1985) account, be disavowed and disowned so that its attributes can be “transferred elsewhere,” this dehumanization is also a signification, providing a surplus of meaning, meaning that can be abstracted, detach and float, be “transferred” and re-signified, enabling the primitive accumulation that connects war to slavery, and the role of both in colonization. This is life possessed as capital, as property, as collateral damage, as the fodder of nation building and civil order. The active reproduction of bodies denuded of their own social meanings, alienated, become the symbolic surface upon which a carceral society relies.

If the slavery of today’s prison is one of warehousing and holding bodies as capital, it makes sense that prisons rarely look anything like a prison, factory, or plantation. More accurate might be to look to the buildings in which enslaved peoples were kept while awaiting their sale—warehoused as capital, their value set among an inventory of bodies, rather than as active labor. While on the inside these buildings were unmistakably the human cages that we still see today in the isolation wings of the contemporary prison, from the outside they looked inconspicuous, like an ordinary house or storefront.

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile TerritoryClick to view larger

Figure 9. The historic building that was Bruin’s Slave Jail, in which Joseph Bruin and his company, Bruin and Hill, imprisoned enslaved African people in Alexandria, Virginia, as they awaited their sale to other slaveholders. (Screen capture from Google Streetview by Ashley Hunt)

Countering many traditional accounts of slavery, Patterson (1982) characterizes the drawing of meaning and livelihood from the subordination of others as a form of “parasitism.” Here the master—or others of us who draw meaning and resource from subordination—are the actual parasites, rather than the slave as the parasite living off of the master. Characterized by Patterson as the “saddest aspect” of slavery’s historical account is the “sincerity” with which he says it “persuades itself and its audience that the great achievement of American slavery was the civilizing of the black race, its tutorship and elevation from savagery to civilization” (Patterson, 1982, p. 335). As the discourse of crime control strips poor, queer, non–gender-conforming bodies and people of color alike from their full humanity, its ideology holds precisely this parasitic play of meanings, where even liberal carceral ideology echoes its “civilizing mission,” in which police and prisons might fix and civilize the out-of-order.

Hostile Territory

Against such conditions of subordination, however, the hostile territory within which the prison regime governs is not merely one of conspicuous rebellions and escapes—its hostile territory is also made up of that which remains beyond the reach of its sight and control. These territories of control are equally territories of what the prison fails to control, to capture, or render legible—the spaces of thought and dream in which we are able to—or must—imagine a different set of possibilities and futures and realize them in layers of action and organization.

Against the gaze of these aggregate system are the eyes that look back. We may have been in and out of prisons ourselves, seeing with our own eyes through these fences, doors, and gates, and in one direction or other through the security glass of a visiting area. We may have felt the gaze of the prison’s agents upon ourselves, assigning us identities—even if only for a visit—that we know are not all of who we are, searching our person, our things, and intentions with hands and questions, looks and non-responses. We may have seen the prison in personal photographs, letters, and testimonies sent by loved ones, pen pals, or clients, where despite the tight regulation of what travels in and out by prison administrators, an insurgent knowledge still escapes, defies control, and contradicts the smooth narratives and control fantasies of the carceral state.

The flipside of this control fantasy (the prison’s law enforcement utopia), which is equally the product of the carceral state and must be considered as such, is what it produces by accident: counter-utopias made of popular disorder, heterogeneity, of study, organizing, and resilience, wherein new things become possible, where difference refuses to be known nor eliminated, and we are able to concoct a different horizon.

Since we are never fully commensurable with the order placed onto us, we can’t help, even incidentally, but push back against it, reroute it, differ from it and live otherwise. We find contraband methods for keeping ourselves opaque, illegible, and counterfeit in our agreement with the prison’s legibilities and order. We create blind spots in which we retain threads of self, memory, communication, and survival that cannot be confiscated nor limited to the regime’s legibilities. We write and make things, share information and remember what contradicts its smooth narratives. Against the visual field that the prison creates stands the clandestine vision of the prisoner, the witness, the skeptic, where we study the instances of its operation, its successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses, the contradictions in its rhetoric and actions, and we forge life outside the limits of its understandings with another field of meanings, legibilities and vision.

Stephano Harney and Fred Moten’s (2013) notion of “the surround” might reflect one such counter-utopia, a space of existence in difference from the militarized regime. Introducing this concept in their Undercommons: Black Study and Fugitive Planning and Black Study, the refer us to the colonial settler fort surrounded by insurgent “natives,” as analyzed in “imperialist” films by Michael Parenti. Harney and Moten agree with Parenti’s critique of the ideological “inversion,” which presents the natives as the aggressor against the settler, rather than the other way around. They continue, however, that “the image of a surrounded fort is not false.” Instead, they contend, “the false image . . . is what emerges when a critique of militarised life is predicated on the forgetting of the life that surrounds it. The fort really was surrounded, is besieged by what still surrounds it, the common beyond and beneath—before and before—enclosure” (Harney & Moten, 2013, p. 17).

Beyond the vision that facilitates confinement and subordinates subjects as imprisonable is this life that inevitably surrounds and infiltrates it, which the prison renders invisible, mute, and illegible, erasing with a Sisyphean repetition the life and history, the hostile territory in which it finds itself and has it “besieged.”

The Other Sight of the Prison

To inquire into the optics of the carceral state is therefore to inquire into the larger optical-discursive regime in which the prison is situated—not only the vision of a particular institution, but the sensible fabric of the larger raciological order that it sits within, enforces, regulates, is produced by, and, in turn, reproduces and composes for a point of view. The prison stages this order technologically, through security techniques that are shared between the military, police, and the public and private industries that research and develop them, while, ideologically, it produces legibilities—those of security but also of social services, cultural industries, and the care and reform of the self. While the latter are often intended to humanize the prison, just as often, they normalize its growth and contribute to its camouflage. In this way, the prison confines not only bodies but also resistant visual orders, insurgent subjectivities, and the anti- and decolonial thought that would figure a different future and account of the present.

Beyond the control of disorder, the erasures of the aesthetic regime of mass incarceration can also be seen as productive, presenting a figure—an image—against which the very edifice of progress is measured—a sacrificial figure of who will be in bondage so that the rest of us can believe ourselves to be free; of those who will be at risk so the rest can be safe; a compound image of what there is to fear in the world so that any reform or critique of carceral practices is in itself seen as a threat.

To study prisons cross-culturally is to study the staging of these oppositions and to see how their staging, as a subjugating trope, roots into a given society’s specific relations of difference. Whether it draws them across ethnic, class, gender, sexuality, cultural, or religious differences or differences of historical and political investments, its effect is raciological. The histories of criminal codes are never innocent of such stagings, and as policing performs them within streets and homes, the prison generates it as an architecture, an administration, a spatial-temporal regime, and a politics of sight.

Insurgent Futures

In addition to what the prison does is what it shows—histories of warfare and resistance, their evidence continually erased but expressed nonetheless in details like the ballistraria window that links El Morro and Guaynabo. Marking two ends of the history of modern globalization—from the colonial control of people for their labor to their neocolonial idling and warehousing as symbolic objects—the ballistraria holds a memory to be recounted. The particularity of its shape, as a fortification amidst hostile territory, likewise teaches us that one cannot understand force unless one also studies the resistance its force engenders—its richochet, the agency that it activates and attempts to repress.

In this way, the hostile territory of the prisoner’s gaze—which has always countered that of the jailer—is one that sees beyond the racializing regime of the carceral state to a future outside the prison and without it. As the contemporary prison is so often presented as a landscape without a prison, it might also offer us an image upon which we can imagine a future without it.

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile TerritoryClick to view larger

Figure 10. Montana State Penitentiary, outside Deerlodge, Montana. (By Ashley Hunt, 2014)

Angela Davis reminds us that a movement for the abolition of prisons is as old as the modern institution itself (Davis, 2003), where alongside the translation of chattel slavery into penal slavery, so has its resistance persisted—be it against a slave plantation, a plantation prison or a human warehouse. Harney and Moten write: “Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons” (2013, p. 42). Rather than focusing myopically on the prison alone, they direct that vision to the larger carceral state, which is not a society that merely includes mass incarceration, but a form of society that requires mass incarceration, allowing us to consider: What then is the society that does not require it?

Today’s abolitionism operates through both the practical work and the political imaginings of organizations, activists, artists, and thinkers interested in a future in which the prison has become obsolete. They not only fight the expansion of the prison industrial complex’s different parts, they work to address harm without the additional harm that police and imprisonment bring, refusing its racializing subjugations and building the self-determination that the prison industrial complex undermines, with the health, well-being, stability, and safety that many take for granted.

Considering this within a visual study and the frame of a materialist aesthetics is to open windows onto such alternative futurity: futures with different horizons than appear possible today, but which our carceral conditions inspire. Whereas the castle, tomb, and the naturalized landscape suggest timeless, immovable, and inevitable space for the future, this thinking reframes mass incarceration within its own short and contingent history, where the carceral state is but one possible, unnecessary and changeable outcome.

To write, think, or act only within the disciplinary frame of criminological or carceral epistemology is to privilege the jailer’s account of the world, trapping the analyst as well within it intellectually—our political imagination marshaled as an accomplice in its erasures and deafened to the greater dimensions of visuality and meaning that a study of the prison must also include.

This is therefore a labor of re-signification as well: re-inscribing the prison within the histories it attempts to disavow, the carceral state with the “hidden dimensions” it maintains, the warfare that it disguises, and injuries it disowns. It is to shake loose images of prisoners and their communities from the prison’s order, from both its conservative vengeance and its liberal paternalism alike, and re-inscribe them with the agency, survival, and celebration that the carceral order erases from history. It is to map the echoes of the prison out into the larger society, its carceral organizations of bodies and techniques, its racialized seeing and semblances of sound, object, and image, and to follow these echoes globally, as part of an anti-colonial analysis that does not stop at national borders or short arcs of history.

In other words, as it analyzes the carceral state on one hand, it is to foreground what the prison does not mean to produce on the other—the ricochet of its counter-narratives, its insurgent images and decolonial thought, the rich traditions of explanation, study, survival, transcendence, and beauty, the resistance that meets the force of the carceral regime’s images, past and present, and to think, act, make, and see experimentally from within this hostile territory.

Politics of Vision in the Carceral State: Legibility and Looking in Hostile TerritoryClick to view larger

Figure 11. View of Pelican Bay State Prison from California Highway 197, Crescent City, California. (By Ashley Hunt, 2014)

Further Reading

Agozino, B., & Pfohl, S. J. (2003). Counter-Colonial criminology a critique of imperialist reason. London: Pluto Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Azoulay, A., & Bethlehem, L. (2015). Civil imagination: A political ontology of photography. London: Verso.Find this resource:

Berger, D. (2016). Captive nation: Black prison organizing in the civil rights era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.Find this resource:

Bolton, R. (1999). The contest of meaning: Critical histories of photography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

Bright, D. (Winter, 1985). Of mother nature and Marlborough men. Exposure, 23(1).Find this resource:

Camp, J. T., & Heatherton, C. (2016). Policing the planet: Why the policing crisis led to Black Lives Matter. London: Verso.Find this resource:

Fusco, C. (2003). Only skin deep: Changing visions of the American self. New York: Abrams.Find this resource:

Gordon, A. (2011). Ghostly matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Hartman, S. (1997). Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery and self-making in nineteenth-century america. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

James, J. (2005). The new abolitionists: (Neo) slave narratives and contemporary prison writings. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Lasch, P. (2010). Black mirror = Espejo negro. Durham, NC: Duke University Museum of Art, 2010.Find this resource:

Lichtenstein, A. C. (1996). Twice the work of free labor: The political economy of convict labor in the New South. London: Verso.Find this resource:

Muhammad, K. G. (2010). The condemnation of blackness: Race, crime, and the making of modern urban America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Parenti, C. (2008). Lockdown America. London: Verso, 2008.Find this resource:

Pinney, C. (2003). Photography’s other histories (objects/histories). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Rose, G. (2016). Visual methodologies. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Seigel, M. (2009). Uneven encounters: Making race and nation in Brazil and the United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Silverman, K. (2013). The Threshold of the Visible World. Florence: Taylor and Francis.Find this resource:

Smith, S. M. (2013). At the edge of sight: Photography and the unseen. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books.Find this resource:

Tagg, J. (2007). The burden of representation: Essays on photographies and histories. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Tagg, J. (2007). The burden of representation: essays on photographies and histories. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:


Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: New Press.Find this resource:

American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. (2014). Warehoused and forgotten: Immigrants trapped in our shadow private prison system. Retrieved from

Baum, D. (1997). Smoke and mirrors: the war on drugs and the politics of failure. Boston: Little, Brown.Find this resource:

Louis Berger & Associates, Inc. (1989). Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Metropolitan Detention Center, draft environmental impact statement. Submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons. Retrieved from

Blondel, J., & Patte, P. (1771). Cours d’architecture ou Traité de la décoration, & Construction Des Batiments. Paris: Chez Desaint.Find this resource:

Burke, E. (1757). On the sublime and beautiful. New York: Hurst.Find this resource:

Butler, J. (2005). Giving an account of oneself. New York: Fordham University Press.Find this resource:

Butler, J. (2009). Frames of war: When is life grievable? London: Verso.Find this resource:

Césaire, A. (2001). Discourse on colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.Find this resource:

Churchill, W., & LaDuke, W. (1986). Native America: The political economy of radioactive colonialism. Insurgent Sociologist, 13(3), 51.Find this resource:

County of Lancaster, PA. (2016). History of the Lancaster County Prison. Retrieved from

Critical Resistance. (2017). What is the PIC? What is Abolition? Retrieved from

Davis, A. Y. (2003). Are prisons obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.Find this resource:

Derrida, J. (1990). Deconstruction and the possibility of justice. New York: Cardozo Law Review.Find this resource:

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black reconstruction: An essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860–1880. New York: Harcourt, Brace.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.Find this resource:

Gilmore, R. W. (2007). Golden gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Gilmore, R. W. (2011). Beyond the prison industrial complex. YouTube, CAN TV. Retrieved from

Hager, E. (2015). “Debtors’ Prisons, Then and Now: FAQ.” The Marshall Project.Find this resource:

Haley, S. (2016). No mercy here: Gender, punishment, and the making of Jim Crow modernity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina PressFind this resource:

Hall, S. (1978). Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state, and law and order. London: Macmillan.Find this resource:

Harney, S., & Moten, F. (2013). The undercommons: Fugitive planning & black study. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.Find this resource:

Hourihane, C. (2012). The Grove encyclopedia of medieval art and architecture. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Irwin, J. (2004). The warehouse prison: Disposal of the new dangerous class. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Johnston, N. B. (1955). Pioneers in criminology. V. John Haviland (1792–1852). The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 45(5), 509–519.Find this resource:

Johnson, L. B. (1966). Special message to the Congress on law enforcement and the administration of justice. In Public papers of the presidents (Vol. 1). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.Find this resource:

Johnston, N. B. (2000). Forms of constraint: A history of prison architecture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

Kalman, H. D. (1969). Newgate prison. Architectural History, 12, 50–61.Find this resource:

Kimme, Dennis A. (1998). Jail design guide: A resource for small and medium-sized jails. U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections. Retrieved from this resource:

King, D. J. (1983). Castellarium Anglicanum: An index and bibliography of the castles in England, Wales, and the islands. Millwood, NY: Kraus International.Find this resource:

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Linebaugh, P. (1992). The London hanged: Crime and civil society in the eighteenth century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Merrit, K. L. (2016). One continuous graveyard: Emancipation and the birth of the professional police force. African American Intellectual History Society. Retrieved from this resource:

Mignolo, W. (2011). The darker side of Western modernity: Global futures, decolonial options. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Muhammad, K. G. (2010). The condemnation of blackness: Race, crime and the making of modern urban America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Patterson, O. (1982). Slavery and social death: A comparative study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Rainer, Y. (2006). Feelings are Facts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

Rancière, J. (2014). Aisthesis: Scenes from the aesthetic regime of art. London: Verso.Find this resource:

Rancière, J., Panagia, D., & Bowlby, R. (2001). Ten theses on politics. Theory and Event, 5(3).Find this resource:

Rothman, D. J. (1971). The discovery of the asylum; social order and disorder in the new republic. Boston: Little, Brown.Find this resource:

Scarry, E. (1985). Injury and the structure of war. Representations, (10), 1–51.Find this resource:

Scarry, E. (1985). The body in pain: The making and unmaking of the world. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Schept, J. N. (2015). Progressive punishment: Job loss, jail growth, and the neoliberal logic of carceral expansion. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

Scott, J. C. (2008). Seeing like a state how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Sekula, A. (1986). The body and the archive. October, 39, 3–64.

Sexton, J. (2015). Unbearable blackness. Cultural Critique, 90, 159–178.Find this resource:

Sexton, J., & Lee, E. (2006). Figuring the prison: Prerequisites of torture at Abu Ghraib. Antipode, 38(5), 1005–1022.Find this resource:

Time Magazine. (September 20, 1968). Lurching off to a shaky start. Time. 92(12), 34. Retrieved from,9171,838728,00.html.Find this resource:

Torres, A., & Velázquez, J. E. (1998). The Puerto Rican movement: Voices from the diaspora. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Find this resource:

Virilio, P., & Collins, G. (1994). Bunker archeology: Texts and photos. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.Find this resource:

Williams, R. (1976). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Williams, T. (February 11, 2015). Jails have become warehouses for the poor, ill and addicted, a report says. The New York Times. Retrieved from this resource:

Wynter, Sylvia. (2003). Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument. CR: The New Centennial Review, 3(3), 257–337.Find this resource:


(1.) By 2014 the BOP’s scale would grow an additional four times over to 214,149 prisoners, held in 157 prisons—making up but a small portion of the total of 2.3 million inmates throughout all U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers that same year.

(2.) While in circulation for decades, “mass incarceration” was popularized nationally by Michelle Alexander through the reception of her The New Jim Crow (2010).

(3.) The working definition for critical resistance reads: “The prison industrial complex (PIC) is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems”:

(4.) Consider here the histories of slave-plantations turned penitientiaries, such as Angola in Louisiana, and Parchman Farms in Mississippli (see also Haley, 2016; Merrit, 2016; Muhammad, 2010).

(6.) See the temples of Karnak, Aswan, and Luxor as a few examples.

(7.) On the presidential level, this would include Nixon and then candidate Barry Goldwater, whose racially codified language was perfected in the presidential rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, as well as liberal figures such as Lyndon Johnson, who in 1965 called for this “war on crime,” before Nixon called for a war on drugs. It includes Bill Clinton, who helped to guide these shifts into the doubling of the U.S. prison system’s size, which has continued to grow under the presidents since. Of Nixon, H. R. Haldeman writes in his diaries that he “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks . . . [t]he key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” (Baum, 1997, p. 13) Johnson himself wrote, “I hope that 1965 will be regarded as the year when this country began in earnest a thorough and effective war against crime” (Johnson, 1966, p. 264).

(8.) An example of this can be seen in corridors of the Men’s Central Jail of Los Angeles.

(9.) For theories on the state of emergency, or what is revealed about the nature of the state when it suspends constitutional protections and rights in the context of what it claims as an emergency, claiming a “state of exception,” see the writings of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben, and Sunera Thobani.

(10.) See accounts of Jeremy Bentham’s architectural design for the Panopticon, organized by a central tower from which guards can see out into the cells that encircle it, but into which the surrounding prisoners cannot see; by not knowing whether they’re being watched, Bentham’s theory is that they police themselves. A model that was also attempted in factories, schools, hospitals, military baracks, and more, Michel Foucault extends it to how one component of power works within Western modernity, whereby not knowing when we are or aren’t surveiled, we do power’s work for it by policing ourselves and one another.

(11.) Following Radical Reconstruction, this can be seen in the institution of vagrancy laws, laws against owing people money, possessing the property of white people, and others that targeted the specific circumstances of newly emancipated black people.

(12.) At the time of this writing, current examples of this are the police killings of Philando Castile in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.