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Criminology
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(Un)seeing like a prison: Counter-visual ethnography of the carceral state
Judah Schept
Theoretical Criminology 2014 18: 198
DOI: 10.1177/1362480613517256

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TCR0010.1177/1362480613517256Theoretical CriminologySchept

Article

(Un)seeing like a prison:


Counter-visual ethnography
of the carceral state

Theoretical Criminology
2014, Vol. 18(2) 198223
The Author(s) 2014
Reprints and permissions:
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DOI: 10.1177/1362480613517256
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Judah Schept

Eastern Kentucky University, USA

Abstract
While prisons proliferate in the rural landscape and sites of penal tourism expand, the
carceral state structures the available visual and analytic vantages through which to
perceive this growing visibility. Using examples from fieldwork in Kentucky, including
Appalachian prison communities and a site of penal tourism, this article proposes
counter-visual ethnography to better perceive the ideological work that the carceral
state performs in the spatial and cultural landscape. A counter-visual ethnography
retrains our eyes to see that which is not there but which structures the contemporary
empirical realities we observe, record, and analyze: the ghosts of racialized regimes past,
the sediment of dirty industry that seeps into and imbues the present, and the transhistorical and trans-local circulation of carceral logics and epistemologies. In addition,
this article suggests the important role images play in shaping alternative vantages from
which to better perceive the carceral state with historical, spatial, and political acuity.
Keywords
Capitalism, ethnography, geo-history, knowledge production, prison industrial
complex, radical criminology

Legibility implies a viewer whose place is central and whose vision is synoptic. State
simplifications of the kind we have examined are designed to provide authorities
with a schematic view of their society, a view not afforded to those without authority.
Rather like the US highway patrolmen wearing mirrored sunglasses, the authorities enjoy
Corresponding author:
Judah Schept, School of Justice Studies, Eastern Kentucky University, Stratton Building 467, 521 Lancaster
Ave, Richmond, KY 40475, USA.
Email: Judah.schept@eku.edu

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a quasi-monopolistic picture of the selected aspects of the whole society. This privileged
vantage point is typical of all institutional settings where command and control
of complex human activities is paramount. The monastery, the barracks, the factory floor,
and the administrative bureaucracy (private or public) exercise many state like functions
and often mimic its information structure as well.
(James C Scott, Seeing Like a State, 1998: 79)

Introduction
Field notes, July 2012
We stood on the side of a country road in the mountains of eastern Kentucky and opened the trunk
of my car in order to begin unpacking Jills camera equipment. Across the rural highway, nestled
in an otherwise bucolic eastern Kentucky valley, was Little Sandy, the states newest prison and,
according to the Department of Corrections own website, its most technologically sophisticated.
We saw no people, guards or prisoners. As a researcher and a photographer studying the political
and cultural geography of incarceration in the state, our intention was to get a sense of the place
the prison takes in the landscape. We popped the trunk and began discussing what equipment to
use. A white pickup truck with official tags pulled up behind us. A correctional officer stepped out
of the truck and began walking toward us, all the while speaking into the walkie-talkie attached to
his shoulder. Friendly but curt he got right to the point: he would need to call the police and
confiscate our equipment and photographs if we stayed any longer or took pictures of the facility.
You see those signs? he asked, pointing up and down the road to signs far in the distance on
either side of us. No photographs between those signs. He got back in his truck and started the
engine. We could see him talking into his walkie-talkie. He shut off the engine and returned to our
car before we could leave. Im going to need to see your IDs, he said, and promptly jotted down
both of our drivers license information before ushering us on our way.

The correctional officers role in this encounter from my field work eminently demarcated a visual hierarchy: only authorized personnel could look with anything other than
a fleeting gaze at the embodiment of state power and violence that is a prison. Between
signs that extended the prisonscape a hundred yards in either direction, the only permitted look was an ephemeral one obtained from a passing car. Those of us who would
enjoyor perhaps even demanda right to see prisons in a way that exists outside of
their control are given a firm dismissal: move on, there is nothing to see here.1 Of
course, the very ability of the officer to interrupt our attempt to document the prison
relied on the prisons power to make us visible. The cameras that were undoubtedly
trained on us from the prison and the surrounding landscape created a unidirectional
sightline. The prison could remain largely invisible while we were subjected to surveillance, control, and the threat of detention, loss of property, and arrest.
According to visual culture scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff, the opposite of this right to
look is not censorship. Indeed, information about Little Sandy exists on Kentuckys
Department of Corrections website and images can be found there or through various
Internet search engine map functions.2 Rather than censorship, the appropriate

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Figure 1. Prison Towns Main Street, five months after a tornado.

oppositional force to a right to look is what Mirzoeff (2011: 474) calls visuality, or that
authority to tell us to move on and that exclusive claim to be able to look. Mirzoeff
argues that the complex of visuality is comprised of three constitutive components: classification (through naming, categorizing, and defining); separation (of those classified as
a means for social organization); and aestheticization, by which he means the production
of a normalized and hegemonic common sense. In other words, the opposite of such a
right is the authorial role of the state in constructing, legitimating, and normalizing its
own history and presence.
Once told to move on, we packed up our equipment and left, driving the 20 miles into
nearby Prison Town, a community whose pseudonym seemed to choose itself because it
is sandwiched between Little Sandy and a second state prison. In Prison Town, I experienced the most emotionally charged moments of the research: staring at the destruction
of downtown residential and commercial buildings due to a devastating late winter tornado (see Figures 14). Here, the hub of Appalachian public and civic life remained decimated, five months after the tornado had struck. The prisons, however, persisted; their
durability was literally inscribed architecturally and in the larger geography of the community. The contrast between the empty devastation of the proverbial and literal Main
Street and the humming, fortress-like invincibility of incarceration raised layers of questions: about what it means to invest more human, financial, and political capital in institutions of exclusion than the public commons; about the physical and symbolic place of
incarceration in the rural landscape; and about the role of the state and capital in structuring the future of communities.3
These encounters from my fieldwork index a broader relationship between state
authority and the structuring of the visual field. Jill, a photographer, and I had wanted to
visually integrate the prison into its geographical and historical contexts, situating its
dominating presence in the dilapidated rural communities that are its host and in the
migrations of capital and jobs out of Kentucky that structured its very potential. It is

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Figure 2. Closed for Renovation on Prison Towns Main Street.

Figure 3. Flag on Prison Towns Main Street.

precisely this kind of inquiry that the state tries to preempt, and its visual documentation
that the state finds suspect and thus subjects to securitization (Simon, 2012).
The visuality of prisons and other carceral institutions configures our ability to
perceive them, the available vocabularies with which to speak of them, and the contexts in which to place them. That is, the carceral state has structured our very

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Figure 4. China King Coming Soon, Main Street in Prison Town.

capacities to perceive this particular coercive constellation of state power, especially


in its historical and spatial contingencies. This article examines the relationship
between the growing visibility of carceral formations in the political economic, cultural, and geographical landscapes of Kentucky and the narratives and vantages that
such visibility both enacts and precludes. I argue for a counter-visual scholarly practice that can better perceive and intervene in the visual and ideological prevalence of
the carceral state.
I draw from multi-sited fieldwork in order to illuminate the connection between carceral growth and the structuring of our visual and rhetorical means for understanding it.
First, in rural prison towns in eastern Kentucky, I address the narrow and dubious narrative of economic development through which prison building is justified and which, in
the process, buries other narrative vantages. Second, hundreds of miles west of eastern
Kentucky prisons in a charming Bed and Breakfast built on and in an old jail and gallows
and haunted by the ghosts of its executed and incarcerated former prisoners, I consider
the ideological work that the carceral state performs in and through locations that would
seem to operate outside of its reach. After progressing through brief examinations and
analyses from this fieldwork, this article then engages in a broader reflection on what
such experiences might suggest for ethnographya methodology often caught up in the
empirical momentthat engages the politics of visuality.

From visual to visuality: Reframing the image


In the context of this special issue on visual criminology, this article interrogates the
relationship between visibility and visuality by examining what images exist and how
the carceral state mobilizes those images into dominant narratives. In addition, in a

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preliminary attempt to reveal alternative vantages from which to perceive the growth of
prisons and the increased circulation of carceral logics, I offer a counter-visual analysis.
Such an approach attempts to disturb the prison as a key ingredient of our common
sense (Davis, 2003: 18) and intervene in the naturalized landscape on which the political drama of other scenes of torture and terror take place (Rodriguez, 2006: 10). By
putting carceral formations and logics into the same narrative and visual orbit as certain
practices, histories, and industries that are often disconnected from both popular and
scholarly examinations of incarceration, this article suggests analytical and visual vantages that delineate a committed and radical approach to the study of the prison industrial
complex. Indeed, that terms utility for analyzing the true scope of carceral logics and
practices further underscores the necessity of new methodological approaches that destabilize and broaden the ocular obsession within criminology of narrowly looking at institutions and the captives and captors therein. The prison industrial complex in the United
States extends beyond the sheer volume of this countrys world-leading incarcerated
population and the constitutive miseries, political interests, and even resistances. Rather,
the scope includes the collateral consequences of mass imprisonment in communities
(Clear, 2007; Mauer and Chesney-Lind, 2002; Western, 2006), its representational performances in our living rooms through media (Hall, 1997; Hall et al., 1978; Kappeler and
Potter, 2004), and in communities through other cultural forms (Brown, 2009), and its
existence as a regime of knowledge, grounded in and structuring various intersecting and
overlapping regions of logic and discourse, such as philosophies of punishment, neoliberalism, colonialism, and development (Agozino, 2003; Foucault, 1980: 4748; Gilmore,
1999, 2007; Sloop, 1996), and the work all of these perform in structuring individual and
community dispositions (Schept, 2012, 2013). As such, studying carceral growth and
emergent forms of the culture of punishment requires a scholarly gaze that can account
for such diffuse and diverse iterations and which can see the prison in the spatial, cultural, and political-economic landscape and excavate what its material presence obscures,
hides, and buries (Loyd et al., 2012).
A counter-visual ethnography looks for what is not there (Gordon, 2008): the ghosts
of racialized regimes past, the sediment of dirty industry that seeps into and imbues the
present, and the trans-historical and trans-local circulation of carceral logics and epistemologies that structure the contemporary empirical realities we observe, record, and
analyze. This is thus an argument for a committed epistemology, an ethnographic sensibility (Ferrell et al., 2008: 179) that foregrounds and then destabilizes the geographical
and political-economic structuring of contemporary discourse and knowledge. Such an
approach aims to reveal that our vocabularies of perception and our visual language
(Carrabine, 2011: 6) of the carceral moment are limited to the familiar and predictable
refrains enabled by what Morrison (2004: 343344) has called the defining ability of
state power [which] remains the key to criminological epistemology.
This method offers a variation on existing calls for new methodological approaches to
the visual including Ferrell and Van de Voordes (2010) argument for a critical visual
analysis that integrates cultural criminology and the documentary photograph tradition
(see also Courtney and Lyng, 2007; Greer et al., 2007). Such an analysis, they argue,
furthers the important project of unlearning conventional research designs, hegemonic
representations of both criminal and crime control agent, and the larger and imperative

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task of orthodox criminological convention. And yet this article also departs from theirs
in its insistence on historicizing the decisive moments that Ferrell and Van de Voorde
position as the target of a cultural criminology of the image. There is a distinction
between critical study of the image and critical study of visuality. In the latter, the image
is only a constitutive part of the larger scholarly and political project, both in the important role it can play in attaching epistemic legitimacy to representation but also in its
strategic importance in looking back at the state. Indeed, as Wall and Linneman (no date)
argue in an unpublished paper, visuality is never complete. Read by the authors as the
aesthetic authority of police power, visuality is not
absolute and/or uncontested, as slave revolts, colonial insurrections, revolutions, and everyday
acts of resistance to the dominant order prove. Some form of countervisuality always exists in
antagonistic relation to those peoples, institutions, and structures seeking to authorize
authority by aestheticizing a particular (im)moral geography.

Along with them, I argue for a committed methodological praxis that enacts a countercarceral counter-stare. Following Haywards (2010: 3) important call for a new methodological orientation toward the visual, I suggest foregrounding the study of visuality
and offering counter-visual analyses as the primary expression of such an approachs
politically charged analysis (Hayward, 2010: 3).

Coal, capital, and the carceral


The common sense of incarceration that naturalizes prisons in the landscape is, of
course, the product of various processes and accompanying discourses, most notably the
success of tough on crime movements. But prisons have also long been marketed to rural
communities as keys to postindustrial economic development. This is nowhere more
evident than in Appalachia where coal jobs have been on the decline since the 1970s and
prison growth has risen dramatically. Indeed, a recent article announcing an economic
development conference for eastern Kentucky notes that the region has lost nearly 6000
coal jobs just since mid-2011 (Estep, 2013). The region is also home to eight prisons,
with a ninth currently undergoing the Environmental Impact Study process that often
precedes construction. Once constructed, that prison will be the sixth federal facility
built in central Appalachia since 1992 (Ryerson, 2013).
In the first decade of the 21st century, Kentucky was one of the faster growing
carceral states. According to a press release from Kentucky Governor Steve Beshears
office in August 2010 announcing the states partnership with the Pew Center on the
States, Kentuckys incarcerated population grew by 442 percent, from 3723 prisoners in 1980 to 20,200 in 2010, during roughly the same 30-year period in which the
United States became known for its prison industrial complex. The press release
notes that,
Kentucky has seen one of the nations fastest growths since 2000, growing 45 percent since then,
compared to 13 percent for the U.S. state prison system overall To pay for this increase, total
state spending on corrections in FY 2009 reached $513 million, up from $117 million in FY 1989.4

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Curiously little research in criminology has examined the cultural significance of, and
political economy behind, prison growth in the rural American landscape. With the
exception of compelling work into the fading of rural community in Kentucky by a
criminologist (Tunnell, 2011), there is no criminological scholarship engaging rural
prison growth in the state, where farms, industry, and populations continue to decline
while prisons rise. A Lexington Herald-Leader story from March 2011 confirms that,
The only county in the eastern end of the state that grew more than 10 percent [in the first decade
of the 2000s] was Elliott, but that was because the state opened a prison there in 2005. The 1,000plus inmates at Little Sandy Correctional Complex accounted for all the countys growth.
(Estep, 2011)

At times, the spatial exchange of farm and industry for carceral growth is quite literal.
The excerpt from my field notes that began this article occurred in front of Little Sandy.
The correctional officer who moved us along and threatened to confiscate our camera
equipment did oblige us a few quick questions. In response to my inquiry about what had
preceded Little Sandy on the land on which it was sited, the officer replied, A small
farm. Carceral architecture erased the small farm that had inhabited this rural geography,
burying it under the prison that now occupies the (fleeting) visual register.
A similar pattern emerged in another Appalachian prison town. In a small community
of 2000 about 90 miles south-east of Little Sandy, which I will call Valley View, a private
prison sits empty due to a sex scandal and legislative changes in the state. The prison
takes the literal and figurative place of a prior industry that both shaped and abandoned
the community: coal. The actual land on which the prison now sits empty narrates the
story of Valley View. The road into the prison is a short but steep and curvy drive up from
the communitys main street. The road cuts a wide swath in a range of mountains that
separates the holler in which Valley View sits from the next one over. The prison
perches above the town, literally casting it in its shadow, and demonstrates the intimate
connection between the community and the space. Before the prison company built the
facility in the early 1990s, it was a coal ash dumpsite. Before that, it was a mining site;
two of the towns residents, both former coal miners and prison guards, proudly showed
me where the coal seam is still visible. Before that it was just another mountain in the
chain that forms Valley Views eastern perimeter. This historical lineagefrom mountain to industry, from industry to industrial waste, from industrial waste to new industry,
and from new industry to industrial abandonmentillustrates central features of the relationship between capital and place. First, the small community appears to be a prime
example of what Neil Smith (2008 [1984]: 611, 196206) calls the seesaw movement
of capital.5 The departures and arrivals of capital have structured Valley Views constant
state of both dependency on foreign capital and proneness to taking whatever form in
which that capital comes (back). Second, these iterations of capital investment and
divestment produce conditions and products that materially and symbolically leach into
the land and form layers of sediment that seep into the body and soul of the community:
the extreme health hazards of living near coal ash,6 the potential violence of prison work,
and yet the deep-seated identities that both industries structure.7

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The production of space is critical in the structuring of narrative vantages that accept
the conditions wrought by coal and prison. In this regard, scholarship of coal has offered
instructive points for a counter-visual study of the prison industrial complex. For example, Scott (2010) begins her study of mountain top removal (MTR) with observations
about the geography of presence and absence, noting that, mountain top mines are hidden just behind the ridge visible from the road MTR is all but invisible to the casual
observer. But she goes on to say that MTR is rapidly becoming part of the everyday
landscape, making its drastic alterations of the landscape seem ordinary. And finally,
Once a mountain disappears, how do we know it was ever really there? It becomes a ghost,
nearly possible to ignore. The repetitive redoings of modernity, the planned obsolescence, the
constant remaking of the dualism of future and past make it hard to see what was there only a
few moments before. What we see appears natural. As if it had been there always.
(Scott, 2010: 23)

It is this seemingly contradictory presence/absence that marks visualitys success.


Removing mountainsrendering them invisibleis so quotidian a process that the
drastic alteration of the landscape appears natural, as common sense. I am asking variations of Scotts question above. Instead of the disappearing mountains and the resulting
uncertainty about knowing they were ever there, I am concerned that the growing appearance of the prison in the landscape both sediments its common sense prevalence and
obscures the all too important questions of what was there before and what could have
been there instead.
Other work from the United Kingdom on coal (Byrne and Doyle, 2004) questions the
structured images of industry that are available for consumption. The authors note that
mining is visible to the public only on the surface, in the entrance to the underground
and the rubbish left after coal has been extracted from belowas pit heads and spoil
heaps all that remains [after the industry departs] is the blighted landscape that, at
least in Valley View, gets remade in the image of the next extractive industry. The point,
however, is that the actual activity of mining was carried on unseenbelow ground
out of sighthidden (2004: 168). The essay goes further and points toward the logical
conclusion of suppressing dirty work underground and behind walls: the only images we
have are those that are officially sanctioned. The authors write that few photographs of
mining underground actually exist, save for a lone miners private photographs and
instructional images. Of this latter collection, the authors observe that,
these are staged and represent the view the mining machinery manufacturer or the colliery
company wishes present. A photograph may depict objects out of place, or in a dangerous
condition which, whilst accurate, is not something that the commissioner of the photograph
wishes to portray.
(Byrne and Doyal, 2004: 168)

Contained within both of these examinations of coals visibility are crucial insights for
a counter-visual study of the carceral state. First, the work of visuality constructs authorial

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representations through the naturalization of industrial practices and in the structuring of


available vantages for perceiving the industry. However, both studies also point to the
potential for subversive image work. The ghosts of the mountain are nearly possible to
ignore; the point, then, is to illuminate the specter and to denaturalize the absence of the
mountain. Likewise, the work is to locate the prison in its historical contingencies and to
disrupt the common sense of its place in the landscape. As Byrne and Doyle (2004) note,
the photographic image can still capture the fissures in the armor of authority.
The Elk Horn Coal Company built Valley View in the early decades of the 20th century. The identity of the town and its residents is inextricably intertwined with coal, even
as the local mines closed in the 1970s. I learned much of this from conversations with
local residents, several of whom were miners turned correctional officers. One, whom
Ill call Rich, is a local city councilman who served as our primary point of contact to the
community. Soon after arriving, he drove us to the closed facility for a scheduled tour. I
had been somewhat surprised by his assurances that we could get into the prison. Sure
enough, a voice crackled over the intercom denying our entrance. Rich responded asking
who was in there; he seemed satisfied by the inaudible response and asked if the person
might call in to what I presumed was the prison companys national headquarters to ask.
The company denied our entrance. Still, we were able to walk around the grounds and
eventually Mike, the voice from within, emerged from the prison dressed in dirty work
clothes, a far cry from the snappy uniforms featured on the prison companys website.
Mikes large presence belied a soft spoken and thoughtful demeanor. He told me that
despite sitting completely empty, the prison company still employed a few former correctional officers to watch over the facility 24/7. But employing three local people to
watch over an abandoned prison doesnt make up for the 180 jobs lost. When I pressed
him on what it meant to lose the prison and what hed do next, he shrugged, There just
haint no jobs in eastern Kentucky. Moreover, Rich and Mike noted that the prisons
departure had significant economic implications beyond job loss. As they explained, the
absence of the prison can be felt in the empty gas station, the low utilities payments
(which, during operation, accounted for as much revenue as the rest of the town combined, according to Rich), and the money that 180 people living and working in and
around Valley View then spend in Valley View. When the jobs left, the money followed.
By Mikes estimates, 80 percent of the prisons workforce lived within just a few miles
of the facility. When I asked about pay at the prison, both men scoffed. As desperate as
they were for the prison to return, the hourly rate was extremely low. The jobs start at
about $8.75 an hour, they said; in contrast, average miner work and jobs at federal prisons started at double that rate.8 But those jobs required long, sometimes multi-hour commutes. With this in mind, it is perhaps not hard to understand why Rich and others would
be trying as hard as possible to recruit another private prison company to site in the community. See Figures 57.
A counter-visual ethnographic scholarship must be able to engage such dispositions in
two ways that may necessarily be in tension. First, following cultural criminologys work
on ethnography, a commitment to criminological verstehena methodology of engaged
and reflexive empathy (Ferrell, 1998; Ferrell and Hamm, 1998)requires seeing like a
prison. It was with surprise and even some shame that I found it rather easy to understand where Rich and Mike were coming from in their mourning the loss of the prison

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Figure 5. Valley View from the Prison.

Figure 6. Abandoned Prison in Valley View.

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Figure 7. Old Entrance to the Mine in Valley View.

and their dedication to recruiting a new private prison company to take over the facility
(Ferrell and Hamm, 1998; Kraska, 1998). For them and their community it made sense
to go after an industry perceived as the most reliable for rural economic development in
order to provide the most immediate relief. But a commitment to seeing things from the
perspectives of others must also require a second process: subjecting such common
sense conclusions to interrogation, historicization, and potentially rejection. The belief
that prisons bring development is, of course, reflective of the official line from industry
and the state, both of which position the prison as the best alternative to a coal industry
in its fourth decade of decline. I have referred elsewhere to this individual and community embodiment of hegemonic logics of carceral growth as carceral habitus (Schept,
2013). Following Pierre Bourdieus (1990, 1991, 2005) original formulations, carceral

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habitus is structured and structuring, inscribed with and constrained by hegemonic logics
but also capable of varying and seemingly distinct iterations. In Appalachia, community
leaders advocating prison growth clearly espoused heavily structured dispositions
imbued with the narrative that prisons bring economic prosperity. Importantly, these dispositions also structured individual and community bodies to see the derelict space of
former coal seams and dumping grounds in carceral contours. Indeed, as one scholar and
activist has observed of the facility in Valley View, the iconography within the prison
itself offers an explicit articulation of the two industries. As Ryerson (2010: 73) describes
of a mural centrally located in the lobby of the prison,
The iconic coalminers helmet, pick and shovel [is placed] underneath the state of Kentucky,
locked up from east to west [behind bars]. And so [the prison company] defines the past, present
and future of the state of Kentucky: prisons and coal.

Poor rural communities around the United States devastated by deindustrialization


and the neoliberal withdrawal of the welfare state have turned to incarceration to provide
relief from stagnating economies and unemployment (Bonds, 2009, 2012; Gilmore,
2007; Huling, 2002; Williams, 2011). Ruth Wilson Gilmores (2007) observation of the
prison as a geographical solution to deeply structured urban problems also resonates for
understanding the rural lobby for prison siting. This is certainly true in Appalachian
Kentucky, where numerous national and regional indexes point to its precarious and
devastated status. For example, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index,9 which examines the six sub-indices of Life Evaluation, Physical Health, Emotional Health, Healthy
Behavior, Work Environment, and Basic Access, ranked Kentuckys fifth congressional
district, covering all of Appalachian Kentucky and the counties studied in this project,
435th out of 436 United States congressional districts. In addition, the Appalachian
Regional Commission ranked and studied county economic status in Appalachia from 1
October 2011 through 30 September 2012 and found that every Appalachian Kentucky
county, including all of those included in this study, qualified for distressed status, meaning, according to the report, that they are in the bottom 10 percent of all United States
counties for economic status.
Finally, Wang et al. (2013) examined national life expectancy over a 25-year span
from 1985 to 2010. While the authors found overall increases in life expectancy, they
also note a somber trend of widening disparity between counties. For men, the difference
between the highest performing and lowest performing categories is 17.77 years. For
women, the difference is 12.37. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bottom 10 lists for men and
women include three different Appalachian Kentucky counties: Perry and Leslie for
females (with Perry having the lowest life expectancy for women in the country) and
Perry and Floyd county for men. Floyd County is home to Valley View.
Along with the job loss from coal, it is a powerful and desperate context that buttresses prison siting as a hopeful solution to communities in crisis. But as Gilmore (2007)
and others note, the common sense of prisons bringing jobs and economic growth
belies a body of scholarly work that suggests just the opposite. Hooks et al. (2004) looked
at counties across the country and found that not only did prisons fail to bring prosperity
or growth to the areas in which they were located, they actually obstructed it. In their

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study of 25 years of economic data from rural New York State, King et al. (2003) similarly found that no significant economic difference existed between seven counties with
a prison and seven without a prison. Indeed, rural Kentucky communities lobbying for
prison siting can turn to counties within their own federal congressional district for an
instructive lesson in the effects of prison building. As Ryerson (2013) has argued recently,
three Kentucky counties with federal prisons remain three of the poorest in one of the
poorest congressional districts in the United States.
The prisons place after and literally on top of coaltheir historical, spatial, and economic continuitysuggests that the narrow story of rural economic development buries
other stories that could be told about these two industries. Indeed, the coal seam still
visible in the walls that surround the facility in Valley View does not just demarcate a
piece of industrial history and signify a transcendent cultural identity; through a particular vantage, it also knits together the prison and coal through the overlap in their workforce, through their arrangement of space, through their lasting imprint on the communities
in which they reside, and through the logics they assemble and articulate to justify the
exploitation on which they rely.
It is only through paying attention to the ideology of landscapethe particular means
of organizing and experiencing the visual order of those things on the land (Mitchell,
2003: 242, emphasis in original)that new vantages can be enabled. Following Mitchell
(2000, 2003), the Valley View landscape performs important work, simultaneously erasing the relations of production that produced it while also aestheticizing the results
through the authorial narrative that tells Appalachian residents to take pride in coal and
prison.
Thinking of the prison as a dirty industry like coal furthers this important analytic
vantage. Both employ the same people (literally) to do their dirty work in places that
elude any kind of democratized gaze: under the ground, inside the mountain, and behind
the barbed wire and walls. This politics of verticality (Weizman, 2007) employed by the
state and by industry requires thinking and photographing the presence of the prison
along a three dimensional plane that looks horizontally (the Main Streets of communities
like Prison Town), vertically (the prisons built on top of mountains; the underground
mines) and with various layers of depth (the outsides of prisons and mines and the various interiors that contain increasingly dirty work and constrained bodies and vantages).
Such an approach enables a richer sense of mass incarcerations presence than the narrow
ocular logics we traditionally employ.
Perhaps what is most important in a counter-visual study of prisons and other carceral
formations is providing what is otherwise cropped out. Following Gilmore (2007: 11),
if the prison is not marginalon the physical edge of spacebut rather connected into
contiguous and non-contiguous spatial and temporal relationships, then to understand the
prison and see it we must examine its spatial and historical contexts. What is next to it?
What came before it? What is it built on top of? In asking these questions and answering
them through ethnographic engagement and visual representationthe dilapidated communities, the out of business small businesses, the overgrown homes, the small farms
and former coal seamsperhaps we move toward asking and answering the more pressing, provocative, and inspiring question: what comes after prisons?

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Specters of incarceration
Two hundred miles west of Appalachia, in a quaint town known for its bourbon tourism,
is a site seemingly disconnected from mountain towns and their prisons. The Guards
Guesthouse is a Bed and Breakfast constructed on and in an old county jail and gallows
and haunted by the ghosts of its former prisoners. The Bed and Breakfast occupies two
attached buildings, both of which housed the county jail and gallows at different times.
The renovated front building, which opened as the original jail in 1819 and served as the
jail until 1874, contains six quaint rooms for guests, each of which contained four prefabricated cages during its time as a jail. A substantial part of the back building, which
served as the county jail from 1874 through 1987, remains unchanged from its carceral
identity, including a number of cells.
The Guesthouse relies heavily on this historic continuity between the sites former
and current uses. The website, for example, offers the inn as a unique and luxurious way
to do time. The Guesthouse also emphasizes its designation as one of the top 10 most
haunted places in the United States. That is, the penal tourism (Brown, 2009) that the inn
enjoys constructs a cultural life out of the lives lost at the gallows that once stood in what
is now the courtyard. In a fascinating twist of logics on the Guesthouses website, the
owners simultaneously suggest that residents cannot imagine the past uses of the location
where they now lounge and, at the same time, rhetorically raise the very ghosts that haunt
the site:10
On spring and summer mornings, as you sip hot coffee and chat with other guests over a full
breakfast in the courtyard, its difficult to imagine all of the previous uses of the courtyardas
a work yard for prisoners crushing limestone, a place to visit forlorn relatives, or even the
centralized location of the county gallows.

The inn deliberately invokes the contrast of incarceration and high-end tourism; the latter
is indeed predicated on guests fascination with the former. The Guesthouse is dedicated
to enabling people to play with the concept of incarceration from a comfortable historical
distance yet contemporary locality.
Carceral themes imbue every aspect of a guests stay. Driving up to the Bed and
Breakfast, I first noticed the stockades out front on the sidewalk and in which a steady
stream of tourists posed for the iconic photograph. Walking into the actual building are
important signifiers that speak to the historical memorialization in which the inn engages.
I noticed signs out front for The Guards Guesthouse and, above it, Old County Jail.
Once inside the building, there is a sign hanging over the proprietors room that says,
Remember the history so we can affect the future. What must be asked, however, is
whose history is remembered, what future does The Guards Guesthouse create, and how
is the present discussed?
Chris, the proprietor, welcomed me to the Guesthouse. After introductions, he smiled
and said, Lets get you situated in your cell, the first of many times that he would refer
to the room in which I stayedwhich did not resemble a jail cell at allas a cell. The
keys he handed me contained a normal-looking room key and a set of much larger and
heavier steel keys; the rooms, it turned out, still had the old jail cell doors attached. The

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reference to my room as a cell was just the first of many similar jokes; the Guesthouse
staff rely heavily on a linguistic register full of jail references and gallows humor, including referring to returning guests as our repeat offenders.
Other areas of the Bed and Breakfast maintained a similar distanced articulation of
incarceration and tourism. The reception area where guests check in and out also serves
as a gift shop. Here, one can purchase any number of items marking the time one did at
the inn, including T-shirts, hats, backpacks, and magnets all advertising that I did time
at The Guards Guesthouse. Walking through the reception room leads one into the back
building, which remains largely untouched from its days as the county jail. Four cold,
bare cells display memorabilia from its former carceral usage. In one cell, with two bunk
beds, a display sits on a top bunk that contains various home-made items, including
weapons, a tattoo gun, and a shaving cream canister carved out in order to fashion a key.
Above this display sits a sign that reads, Examples of how the criminal mind works.
These devices were found in the cells. The signage is clearly important. First, it encodes
certain bio-pathological constructs about criminality as the accompanying narrative for
tourists to apply to their tour of the jail and their reflection on its former inhabitants. But
the present tense of the sign, combined with the paraphernalia, violates the memorialization found elsewhere in the Guesthouse and collapses the historical into the present.
Finally, on one of my visits during a warm spring day, the Guesthouse staff served
complimentary breakfast in the bucolic courtyard overlooking the former site of the gallows. While guests ate, the inns proprietor narrated a well-rehearsed history of the site,
including details of the executions that occurred 30 feet in front of the outdoor kitchen
where we sat. Indeed, photographs on the walls inside the building show images from
some of the executions that took place. Just as the online promotional material had suggested, we sat eating a delicious breakfast and drinking coffee, looking at an empty
expanse of grass and finding it difficult to imagine the past while, simultaneously, being
haunted by it (see Figures 8 and 9).
In many ways, this part of the research follows the lead of Michelle Brown (2009),
who argues that most Americans access punishment through cultural means that operate
outside of formal institutions. As she observes, across families, communities, schools,
religion, the military, politics, the economy and beyond, punishment is practiced and
played with in daily life (Brown, 2009: 4). She goes on to suggest that Americans
choose when and under what conditions they would prefer to see prisons and, in the
particularity of that engagement, invoke and reproduce specific kind of logics and
explanatory frameworks and that such quotidian engagement occurs outside of the
prison industrial complex (2009: 4). Importantly, preliminary findings from my research
affirm Browns contentions as they also suggest an important point of departure. Namely,
I question both what choices Americans have regarding the prison industrial complex
and whether its boundaries actually end at the walls surrounding institutions. Rather, I
suggest that the prison industrial complex performs crucial cultural work outside of its
institutional formations, structuring the (limited) choices and frameworks available for
how to see and experience it. In its suturing of signifiers of a pathological criminality to
the death and imprisonment of the county jail, The Guards Guesthouse helps to circulate
hegemonic carceral logics. It should be understood as an active site of the prison industrial complex and as assisting in the work of crafting a carceral habitus.

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Figure 8. The Back Courtyard of The Guards Guesthouse is the Former Site of the County
Gallows.

Figure 9. The Back Courtyard of The Guards Guesthouse.

Applying such an expansive spatial-political role to the cultural work of the carceral state suggests an important additional quality of visuality. In its selective structuring of an authorized history, visuality must also apply to the ways in which the

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carceral state animates a particular future. In Valley View and other locations in
Appalachia, it was clear that carceral habitus structured the ways in which county
residents saw derelict spaces. In The Guards Guesthouse, the Bed and Breakfast
largely mobilized its own carceral history in ways that memorialized actual carceral
practices (Walby and Pich, 2011). When one tours the old jail cells or even elects to
spend the night in their jail cell room, the explicit suggestion is that one is stepping
into a fleeting moment where history collapses into the present. Indeed, The Guards
Guesthouse conspicuously avoids any discussions of the contemporary projects of
incarceration that surround it in the form of county jails, state, federal, and private
prisons. In this way, the inn makes visible the bricks and mortar continuity between
its carceral past and its penal tourist present only insofar as it structures both the
historical and contemporary gazes with which its tourist inmates can experience
incarceration.

Visuality, epistemology, photography


In explicating visuality, Nicholas Mirzoeff (2011) argues that the analytic is not just
composed of visual perception, but rather is formed by a set of relations combining information, imagination, and insight into a rendition of physical and psychic space. Like
panopticism, visuality is a symbolic and discursive practice that has material manifestations. Beyond its useful analysis of relations characterized by domination and repression,11 the analytic of visuality also implicates certain epistemological and methodological
constructs in enabling and legitimating the states gaze (see also Neocleous, 2003: 39
71; Scott, 1998; Williams, 1981: 170). Mark Neocleous (2003: 55, emphasis in original)
has observed that statistics emerged as an important technology of state power, not only
by offering a legitimate predictive capacity to render the complexity of society intelligible, but also by:
insinuating itself into the practices of power by becoming a form of intelligence gathering of
the most general kind since, as with information-gathering, there is by definition nothing
beyond its scope: nothing may escape their gaze is how one nineteenth century statistician
described their task.

But the epistemological work of visuality is not relegated to the perhaps obvious role of
statistics. Some scholarship has identified the camera and the image as technologies
often mobilized by the state and imbued with hegemonic logics and repressive inclinations. Artist and cultural critic Allan Sekula (1986: 16) argues for understanding the
emergence of a truth apparatus where the optical mode of the camera is integrated into
a larger ensemble: a bureaucratic-clerical-statistical system of intelligence. Of course,
many have examined this relationship between seemingly objective photographic depiction and the politics of representation, or what Hall (1981: 238) has called an index of
an ideological theme. Perhaps most compelling are those who situate representational
politics in their colonial histories (see Carrabine, 2012; Ryan, 1997; Said, 1978) and who
reveal the colonial present (Gregory, 2004) that photographs of particular phenomena
further instantiate (Rodriguez, 2006).12

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Mapped onto the criminal, scholars have recognized a similar relationship between
photographic portrayal and hegemonic representation, or what Carney (2010: 18) has
called the social practice of production. In contrast to the postmodern scholarly examination of the photograph as representation and signification, Carney (2010: 31) argues we
must understand that it, presents more than represents, produces more than reproduces
and performs more than it signifies the photograph performs in a field where the material realities of cultural practices in the field of power and desire are at stake. Criminologist
Katherine Biber (2007: 5) has similarly observed that legal images purport to tell the
truth [and constitute] evidence. For Sekula (1986: 5), images of the criminal might
confirm the staying power of the 19th-century new juridical realism and the instrumental
potential of photography to enact a silence that silences (1986: 6) through the contest
between the univocal, essential, truthful image and the perceived duplicity and multiplicity of the criminal. In the invention of these latter characteristics, Sekula argues, a biotype
other distinct from the bourgeois self emerges. The image of this criminal indexes the
mutually constitutive history of criminology and photography and reveals their intimacy
with racist pseudo-sciences of physiognomy and phrenology (Sekula, 1986: 1516; see
also Linneman and Wall, 2013; Rafter, 2009). For Judith Butler (1993: 16), writing of the
Rodney King trials, what is seen through images is always already in part a question of
what a certain racist episteme produces as the visible.
The political-epistemological work of carceral visuality structures the very possibilities for perceiving mass incarceration. Against such heavily structured sight, I wish to
end by arguing that ethnography attuned and committed to revealing the contours of
visuality and disrupting its gaze presents a methodology perhaps best suited to enacting
the right to look and enabling a counter-visual framework.

Counter-visual ethnography
Following Mirzoeff (2011), the right to look exceeds the accumulation of certain visual
images that contest the states authorial narrative. Rather, he argues, it is the grounds on
which such assemblages can register as meaningful renditions of a given event (2011:
477). That is, the right to look is the integration of congregated images within coherent
counter-hegemonic analysis. Building on Courtney and Lyngs (2007: 178) argument
about the power of the aesthetic imagination of artists, I suggest that ethnography shares
the capacity to challenge institutionalized procedures employed by the state system in
constructing the official reality of crime and punishment. It is this articles contention
that a counter-visual ethnography can engage this process through a commitment to see
with historical acuity the relations of production and processes of representation that
have structured the present empirical moment.
But a counter-visual ethnography is not without serious complications. Integrating
photographs or visual methods into ethnography doesnt guarantee deeper or more
nuanced examinations of life. In fact, photographs can confirm or reify stereotypes
already bound to images (Barthes, 1978, 1981; Ferrell and Van de Voorde, 2010; Sontag,
1977). Letting a picture speak its thousand words, Bourgois and Schonberg (2009:
14) write in their photo-ethnography of homeless injection drug users, can result in a
thousand deceptions.

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Traditionally, ethnography subjugates context to empirical observation; if it is not visible it does not matter. As Bourgois and Schonberg (2009: 17, emphasis added) note,
ethnography is attuned to fine-grained observations of individuals in action; it tends to
miss the implications of structures of power and of historical context because these
forces have no immediate visibility in the heat of the moment. Sarah Pink, a visual ethnographer, astutely notes that this same issue carries important methodological and epistemological implications. She writes that:
Material objects are unavoidably visual, but visual images are not, by definition, material the
rupture between visibility and reality is significant for an ethnographic approach to the visual
because it implies that reality cannot necessarily be observed visually the most one can
expect is to represent those aspects of experience that are visible.
(Pink, 2001: 23)

Of course, observation not attuned to context can easily miss the contingencies on which
empirical reality is predicated and misrecognize as natural or cultural what are, in fact,
deeply structured histories. As Nordstrom (2007: 208, emphasis in original) has argued,
contests over visibility have very real and powerful implications: People can see only
what they have the conceptual tools to see. That makes the unseen a powerful tool of
both hegemony and resistance: seeing is power. Nordstroms point here eminently, if
implicitly, advocates for a counter-visual ethnography: a methodology that illuminates
visualityagain, read as the structuring and authorial authorization of historyand
mobilizes the unseen for the purposes of a right to see.
A counter-visual ethnography must intervene in the visuality of mass incarceration,
primarily by revealing its historical contingencies, its instantiated and structured and yet
its precarious place in the landscape. As my opening vignette demonstrated, prisons can
control what we see when we look at their facades and when we tour (Brown, 2009;
Goffman, 1961; Pich and Walby, 2010);13 they do not have to structure our gazes into
their pasts, our examinations of their effect on the landscape around them, and our imagining of a future without them. A counter-visual ethnography thus enables the visualization of what mass incarcerations visuality otherwise obscures or hides.
In the case of Appalachian prison growth, this task is perhaps most salient in examining the spatial exchanges of industry and their structuring of the future of communities.
It would be oversimplified to conclude that Valley Views efforts to recruit prisons are
the product of an inevitable choice to pursue the most immediate form of capital investment. We must look both to the longer histories of capital flows that have instantiated
local positions and positionalities and the more recent ideological work of carceral logics
that have inscribed common senses.
In the case of The Guards Guesthouse, a counter-visual ethnography excavates the
depths of the contiguous relations between the carceral and deathly functions of the
county jail and the contemporary work they perform in structuring the carceral imaginations of the Bed and Breakfasts guests. This is, of course, a different variation of scholarship for the right to see than in Appalachia. There, the work involves illuminating
relationships and alternative narratives rendered invisible by the dominating presence of

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coal and prison and the official stories of both. In contrast, The Guards Guesthouses
success relies on the explicit presence of the spatial history of the site. But there is no
doubt that it is an authorial history. The inn both memorializes and implicitly justifies the
depraved conditions of confinement and premature death. The gallows, the torturous
conditions, and the cage are presented as cultural artifacts of a prior era as opposed to
technologies of racialized and classed punishment that characterize life for millions of
people in the United States today. Moreover, set alongside various signifiers of criminal
pathology, the inn suggests that such violent measures of punishment were acceptable.
The larger critique to be made here, and one with implications for a visual criminology, concerns the epistemological assumptions about the visible and the image. A counter-visual ethnography must be able to offer new vantagesimaged and narrativewhile
also undermining the unwavering faith in the camera and the photograph as a form of
photographic positivism (Linneman and Wall, 2013: 321). Following Linneman and
Walls (2013: 322) argument about mug shots, I suggest that the rural prison and the site
of penal tourism are also inherently political state projects awash in cultural tensions
that cannot be cropped away. Indeed, it is precisely the work of regimes of scopic
powerthe work of visualityto render those tensions invisible.
As I have argued, the visual register of prisons and other carceral formations in the
landscape is stitched to a regime of knowledge and a discourse that naturalizes their
place. The common sense of their presence does not mean that other images and relationships cannot be seen. Rather, corporate and state power constructs particular vantages,
fashions specific presentations of authority, and articulates certain relations and disarticulates others. Thus, the polluted lands, exploited labor, racialized and classed bodies,
and capital accumulation that bring coal and prison into a relationship are not invisible;
our naked eyes have been trained not to see them. A counter-visual ethnography rehabilitates our ocular vantages to see what is not there but which structures the present carceral
moment by illuminating the invisible, excavating the underground, revealing the
inscribed landscape, and raising the ephemeral ghoulish presence. In doing so, countervisual ethnography attempts to envision and presage a counter-carceral future.
Notes
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors. The author wishes to acknowledge the important work of photographer Jill
Frank on this research. In addition, the author appreciates Drs. Michelle Brown and Tyler Wall for
offering helpful comments on earlier drafts as well as the keen insights from two anonymous
reviewers.
All photographs contained within this article are the work and property of Jill Frank, MFA. Jill
can be reached at jfrank@gsu.edu.
1. Nicholas Mirzoeff (2011), following Jacques Rancire (1998) relies on this phrase to identify
visualitys presence and to demarcate what he calls the right to look.
2. See http://corrections.ky.gov/depts/AI/LSCC/Pages/Photos.aspx.
3. I am grateful to Michelle Brown for helping to clarify this point.
4. Available at: http://www.pewtrusts.org/news_room_detail.aspx?id=60365.
5. Valley View exemplifies Smiths argument about the momentum of capital. He argues that

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development of a particular area leads to development of productive forces, in turn leading to


lower unemployment, an increase in wages, development of unions, all lowering the rate of profit
and taking away the impetus for development in the first place. At the opposite pole, he argues,
lack of capital leads to high unemployment, low wages, and reduced worker organization. Thus,
the underdevelopment of specific areas leads, in time, to precisely those conditions that make
an area highly profitable and hence susceptible to rapid development. Underdevelopment, like
development, proceeds at every spatial scale and capital attempts to move geographically in
such a way that it continually exploits the opportunities of development without suffering these
economic costs of underdevelopment. That is, capital attempts to seesaw from a developed to an
underdeveloped area, then at a later point back to the first area which is by now underdeveloped
[capital] resorts to complete mobility as a spatial fix; here again, spatial fixity and spacelessness are but prongs of the same fork. Capital seeks not an equilibrium built into the landscape
but one that is viable precisely in its ability to jump landscapes in a systematic way. This is the
seesaw movement of capital, which lies behind larger uneven development practices.
(Smith, 2008 [1984]: 198, emphasis added)
6. See, for example, http://content.sierraclub.org/coal/disposal-ash-waste.
7. In articulating coal and prisontwo seemingly disparate industriesin the same analysis, I
am nodding to the importance of a dialectical approach to the study of the prison industrial
complex. That is, instead of focusing on the prison, I would argue that we must situate the
prison in the larger processes, flows, fluxes, and relations that more acutely locate the phenomenon of mass incarceration in appropriate contexts (Harvey, 1996: 49).
8. Important to note, but beyond the scope of the present article, is the incentive for private prisons
to keep wages down and to keep out collective bargaining. On this and other points regarding
private prisons see Hallett (2006); Selman and Leighton (2010); and Thompson (2012).
9. See http://www.well-beingindex.com/files/2013WBIrankings/2012WBICompositeReport.pdf.
10. On haunting as a sociological concept of critical importance, see Gordon (2008).
11. Indeed, Mirzoeff compellingly discusses the role of visuality and the right to look across
phenomena characterized by extreme subordination and violence, including slavery.
12. In considering the ways in which representations of the torture at once distanced the Abu
Ghraib scandal and reified the quotidian state violence of the prison industrial complex,
Dylan Rodriguez (2006: 19) writes, The Abu Ghraib photos failed, in this sense, to provoke
a movement of critical discourse beyond the rhetorical parameters of unjust or ineffective war
making, and instead have been assimilated into a critical pro-war sensibility.
13. This scholarship of the prison tour argues compellingly that the tours ability, even purpose,
to provide authorial vantages and knowledge that protect and validate institutional practices
should give pause to scholars interested in the tour as a form of prison ethnography. See
Wacquant (2002) for an alternative argument.

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Author biography
Judah Schept is Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. His research
examines the political economy, culture, and spatial dynamics of the prison industrial complex.

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