Illustration by Connor Heckert

The California farmland that surrounds Interstate 5 grows virtually all non-tropical crops. Corn, soybean, tomatoes, almonds, grapes, garlic, cotton, apricots, asparagus, and even dill—acres of an herb used only in sprinkles to garnish delicate fish dishes. The fertile land serves as an important signpost of my journey, and of just how much space our national dinners take up. Other signposts alleviate the tedious ennui of the American interstate highway system. Mile 30: the Altamont Pass wind farm. Mile 161: the rotten odor of the Harris Ranch feedlot. Mile 190: Kettleman City, devoted, it seems, almost entirely to feeding, lodging, and refueling travelers. Mile 291: the winding Grapevine, where I stop for vegetarian fare in Frazier Park, weather permitting. Mile 353: the High Desert and Palmdale’s stark, bare beauty. There are no straight lines in nature, architect Antoni Gaudí liked to say, and there aren’t any in the trajectory of history, either.

Pacific highways, lifeblood of the West, connect regional economies and irrigate the land with flows of capital: shopping malls, industry, residential suburbs, agriculture—and, less visibly, prisons. Thirty-five of them sit along I-5, tucked far away from discerning eyes and out of bounds to journalists. They glower behind walls of concertina wire, nestled in the world’s breadbasket. Acres and acres of this strange fruit with no end in sight. They dissolve into the landscape, and passersby don’t have to consider what goes on behind their walls. After all, what’s one more body caged in a prison’s dark recesses? What’s one more blemish on an already pockmarked prison archipelago?

When I traveled the West Coast along its straight lines—I-5, I-580, State Route 16—the kind of driving evocative of some mythical “American freedom,” all this nagged at me. Every week in the spring of 2018, I drove from my home near Concord to the north shores of the San Francisco Bay to teach Spanish in San Quentin State Prison. I tried to shake the inkling of melancholy I felt traveling to a prison—a city of cages, as scholar-activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore imagines it—on one of the United States’ quintessential “open roads,” but I never could. Nor could I avoid these thoughts on treks to and from graduate school in Southern California; I’d always note the highways, these thick braids of concrete. I-5, for instance, is a major artery for travel, commerce, and capital. From California’s dry hills—sometimes burnt to a black soot in the summer—and the fertile San Joaquin Valley, up to the Tehachapi and San Gabriel Mountains, I-5 is 1,381 miles of road that sew together the western edges of North America.

Highways and prisons share similar roots: both were designed and thrust upon the landscape as a kind of “defense.” “It is often forgotten,” writes geographer Stephen Graham, “that the massive US interstate highway system was initially labelled a ‘defense highway’ system and was partly designed to sustain military mobilization and evacuation in the event of global nuclear war.” In the 1950s, 41,000 miles of highways were built to assuage US national security anxieties—wide roads and straight lines making it easier for tanks and Humvees to travel coast-to-coast. Nowadays, more than 164,000 miles of these “defensive” roads crisscross the nation. Vehicles move profitable goods great distances alongside captive bodies: soldiers and prisoners.

At the time of writing, there are 2,551 people in San Quentin State Prison, a facility originally built, by convict labor, for no more than 50. The prison stands fearsome and aloof, as if cognizant of its monstrous reputation. It hangs like a sword of Damocles over our heads. Follow the rules, it warns, or I’ll bury you alive.

The warning echoes across the peninsula. San Quentin’s exterior has the same wan pallor of flesh condemned to death. Life inside is held in abeyance, suspended, and the sorrowful grays of San Francisco’s horizon offer impeccable stage dressing. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The bay’s salty air also corrodes the prison’s drab concrete façade, wearing it gradually away. It seems Mother Nature has an abolitionist streak.

* * *

A prison like San Quentin has never been just a place, just as a highway has never been just a road. Like highways, prisons require massive investments in infrastructure to accommodate their weight: weight not only in ferroconcrete, but also in captive bodies, water, land, energy, waste, and a long history of wretched violence in the name of security. The prison has, in fact, been a key fixture of American history since its beginning. As philosopher-activist Angela Y. Davis conceives it, the history of the United States is one of repeated transformation by different regimes of confinement: Indian reservations and the mission system, imperialism and human bondage, racial segregation and racial capitalism. Prisons, too, belong on that list.

Unlike earlier confinements, however, today’s prisons camouflage disturbingly well. They bleed out into canyons, valleys, farmland, deserts, coastlines, and skylines. The Los Angeles County and San Francisco County Jails melt smoothly into the surrounding cityscape. They’re meant to be unseen, their walls impenetrable. Even if they were more visible, finding proof of the influence a prison exerts on your daily life would still be nearly impossible. A prison isn’t just some “building ‘over there,’” as Gilmore describes, “but a set of relationships that undermine…everyday lives everywhere.”

There’s an element of collage here; one must piece together an archipelago of prisons, jails, juvenile halls, and detention centers in order to visualize their full scope. The collage technique is synergistic: an artist draws together an assemblage of disparate parts to produce a new whole. Once they’ve been glued together, the single components are difficult to make sense of, much like the roads, racism, capital, surveillance, militarism, police departments, parks, schools, plantations, evictions, deportations, and prisons that scar the landscape of the United States. Only when treated as a messy whole does a shard of truth become clear: local and federal officials in the United States have undertaken the largest prison-building project in the history of the world to lock up social crises, rather than address them.

Few visual artists communicate this complex reality as well as does filmmaker and geographer Brett Story. Her ingenious documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, for instance, makes abundantly clear that there’s more than one way to see a prison, and the most important don’t involve gazing at it at all. The documentary traces how people live with and against prisons while, at the same time, withholding visuals of prisons. Instead, Story braids together interviews with Black residents of St. Louis County, Missouri, burdened with bogus police citations; with incarcerated women fighting fires in Marin County, California; and with a formerly incarcerated man playing chess competitively in New York City’s Washington Square Park, among others, to emphasize just how ingrained the prison is in American life. Confinement, captivity, and enclosure are everywhere, constant reminders of the prison and its vast reach.

The question of prisons, therefore, is “a question of seeing,” as Story says, and a question of “what all that seeing does or doesn’t do.” A particular sensitivity—a visual literacy—emerges when we learn to see a prison and its reach in the absence of its physical presence; it’s an aesthetic and forensic sensibility that renders visible the invisible. Story’s work, in other words, teaches viewers a new way of seeing. In her book Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power Across Neoliberal America, she recounts an anecdote about how she “see[s] construction cranes along a skyline differently from how [she] did before.” Likewise, after months of driving up and down California’s interstate highways, I don’t see Central Valley farmland, San Franciscan shorelines, or High Desert landscapes through the same eyes I used to. “They’ve lost their innocence,” as Story puts it.

* * *

During his tour of North America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville detailed his experiences studying the already-world-renowned US prison system in Democracy in America. Despite what the title implies, “prisons, not democracy, were what initially brought Tocqueville to the United States,” political scientist Marie Gottschalk points out. Prisons at the time were meant as a showcase: captive bodies were ornaments adorning a ghoulish tourist attraction. Utter silence predominated, as did solitary confinement, which only intensified the spectacle. Long before the United States led the world in incarceration rates, it pioneered style and flair of punishment.

Tocqueville’s was an era characterized by social upheaval and extreme violence. Slavery, westward expansion, Native genocide, and civil war all helped to naturalize imprisonment as the primary mode of punishment in the nineteenth century, and, in an odd turn of events, to make prisons into proud symbols of progress. After 1865, Southern slave states were required to build prisons before they could rejoin the Union, as proof that they were “capable states.” With incarceration on the national agenda, prison construction took off. Freedom in a modern democracy would require an abundance of cages and chains. “The Union victory,” scholar Sara M. Benson writes, “was also a victory for the prison.”

Soon, the palpable violence and cruelty of prisons, then still open to the public, pulled at visitors’ heartstrings. Injustice should not, they felt, breed injustice. In response, elites fine-tuned the machinery of punishment, tinkering with reforms to appease critics, beginning a cycle that continued well into the twenty-first century. Solitary confinement, age- and sex-segregation, and, most recently, so-called “trauma-informed care,” “gender-responsive prisons,” and “community corrections” were all similarly piloted as reforms, but ultimately made prisons more, rather than less, cruel. Take the solitary confinement that Tocqueville and his travel companion, Gustave de Beaumont, encountered. A practice that nineteenth-century Quakers intended to be a humane alternative to the gallows was, in reality, barbaric: “it does not reform, it kills,” they wrote in 1833. And they were onto something. Nowadays, nearly two centuries later, solitary confinement is roundly condemned as an egregious breach of human rights. Any solitary confinement exceeding fifteen days, according to the United Nations, constitutes torture, a fact corroborated by scholars like Dr. Terry Allen Kupers. Survivors of solitary confinement exhibit the same symptoms as survivors of torture, including nightmares, loss of a sense of identity, and suicidal ideation.

Throughout history, prevailing philosophies of punishment have made little difference; prison reforms, whether “tough” or “smart on crime,” only ever pave the way for further expansion. The prison sentence—the lost time and deprivation of liberty that were, alone, once meant to be punishment enough—thus becomes only the beginning of a laundry list of cruelties.

After the nineteenth-century reform attempts, prisons continued to be peddled by boosters, built with taxpayer dollars, and filled with Black and Latino men and women as well as poor whites as a “catchall solution to social problems,” as Gilmore writes in Golden Gulag. Over the decades, federal, state, and city governments made a habit of reaching for the hammer of retribution whenever and wherever the threat of disorder arose. Politicians almost reflexively bulk up police forces and build more prisons and jails at the first whiff of trouble. Many haven’t even considered alternatives because, in their minds, there are none. It didnʼt take long for muscle memory to kick in.

Then came the growing pains. Decade after decade, reform after reform, the prison metastasized across the United States, burrowing into its integument. A new one opened “somewhere in rural America every fifteen days” during the 1990s, according to geographer Tracy Huling. It gobbled up resources wherever it landed. More ferroconcrete to climb. More land to carpet. More funds to lock up or shoot down problem populations. More beds in more cages in more prisons, securing the illusion of safety. And more knees genuflecting before the altar of human sacrifice.

Indeed, the story of prisons is, more than anything, a story of human sacrifice. Millions have been offered. Their stories, reporting, memoirs, biographies, and letters are sometimes all that remain. Viewed together, a captive collage takes shape, glowing with pain—awash with it.

* * *

Picture one of these stories: that of a young Black man, given what turned out to be a life sentence at age eighteen for allegedly stealing $70 from a Los Angeles gas station. He would spend the next ten years in prison, “seven and a half of them in solitary confinement,” only to meet his early demise at the hands of prison guards who murdered him during an alleged escape attempt from San Quentin. His name is George Jackson, and he was thirty years old that day: August 21, 1971.

Jackson’s revolutionary consciousness was formed in the Big House. He joined the Black Panther Party for self-defense behind prison walls and developed a voracious appetite for reading: Mao, Lenin, Trotsky, Marx, and Engels. He is most famous for his letters from prison and his political theory, connecting policing, racial subjection, and revolution. His prose flies off the page, but his fame has traveled further: his murder, for instance, spurred an uprising 2,670 miles away, at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility. In the decades since, this incarcerated intellectual’s writings have inspired generations of activists and scholars.

The year Jackson met his end can be considered a beginning of the United States’ prison boom, when the imperative to punish finally displaced the social obligation to repair damage and offer succor. It was a moment riddled with as many missed opportunities as Jackson’s body was with exit wounds. This “tough on crime” period saw the abandonment of any last pretense of rehabilitation. Ever since, according to sociologist Christian Parenti, prisons have oriented toward the lodestar of vengeful warehousing. With bodies stacked one atop another in tiny six-by-eight-foot cells, prisons now look more and more like a knackery or a graveyard. Jackson died twice, then: the first time when the prison’s walls sealed shut behind him, and the second time when he pried open its door for a brief taste of freedom.

* * *

There’s more than one way to see a prison, and more than one way to disappear it. Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” takes place in a utopian city whose prosperity depends upon the perpetual misery of a single child locked inside a fetid broom closet—tormented, never touched, never loved. Every resident of Omelas knows about the child, but almost all of them ignore it.

Professor Tanya Erzen, executive director of a college program operating at the Washington Corrections Center For Women, wrote that the story’s parallels with imprisonment were “obvious and even overdetermined” for some of her students: lives confined to cages, severely limited human contact, abject dehumanization. The fact of being unseen. There’s also the insidious lie about “safety” and “security” that the citizens of Omelas come to believe. Theirs is a feeling of safety predicated on the immiseration of others. Much like our own.

Likewise, “law and order.” Days before correctional officers murdered him, George Jackson completed Blood in My Eye. In it, he surprises his readers by arguing that “the ultimate expression of law is not order—it’s prison. There are hundreds upon hundreds of prisons, and thousands upon thousands of laws, yet there is no social order, no social peace.” Jackson’s words resonate still: crime rates fall while perceptions of crime hover high above the actual rate. Meanwhile, despite a glut of prisons and police, “social peace” and “social order” remain ever-elusive.

This is by design. Incarceration seduces us with a powerful emotional release that diverts attention away from the inequities that produce violence in the first place. Itʼs a palliative that, like snake oil hurriedly slapped on gangrene, may ease a degree of pain without treating its root causes. Both victims and perpetrators of violence—two groups often indistinguishable from one another—are haunted by absence. Every year—every day, in fact—commemorates the loss of an irretrievable someone six feet under, whether in a grave or in a prison: a missing father, a mother shackled, a child locked up, a missed opportunity for something else. Imprisoning those we most loathe or those who have wronged us does little more than satisfy a thinly veiled schadenfreude, a habit that activist Mariame Kaba reminds us we all learn and must subsequently unlearn. Of course, this is no small matter, as punishment is habit-forming, addictive. “Jailbirds,” it turns out, may be less intractable than the prison, or our efforts to keep it full.

* * *

San Quentin State Prison is California’s oldest, opened in July of 1852. At the beginning of her book, Doing Time Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of the Prison, sociologist Megan Comfort informs her readers that San Quentin sits on “432 acres of prime real estate in Marin County,” overlooking the cerulean waters of the San Francisco Bay’s northern shoreline. In a sense, the prison feels almost absurdly anachronistic, a dreary reminder of past sins. Surely, something else belongs here.

If we start “from the homely premise that freedom is a place,” like Gilmore suggests, then the journey to the land of freedom begins where our feet are firmly planted: the present. Our present geographies, architectures, and infrastructures provide fertile soil to cultivate new futures, but the imagination and the will to build those futures often require major geographic renovations. Jane Jacobs was right in claiming that “new ideas must use old buildings,” but abused, misused structures or those in disrepair must first be repurposed. Likewise, prison abolition is more about construction than demolition. In the absence of cages, space opens up for new structures to rise, new infrastructure to serve our communities, new blueprints for building a future—however improbable or impossible that future may seem. After all, “redemption,” said Walter Benjamin, “preserves itself in a small crack in the continuum of catastrophe.”

There’s more than one way to see a prison, and more than one way to see its end. On my way home from afternoons teaching at San Quentin, my foot pressing on the accelerator, I’d sometimes think about alternatives. A building’s destiny isn’t sealed after cutting a ribbon; residents in Appleton, Minnesota have proposed turning a section of the abandoned Prairie Correctional Facility into a COVID-19 hospital, and land in Denver, Colorado that was once a prison now houses the homeless. Prisons don’t have to stand as monuments to injustice.

From a rearview mirror, the prison is less menacing, more shrunken. It looks pliant. If you squint as you pass San Quentin on I-580 toward Point Richmond, you might think you were looking at a hospital wing, a reclaimed housing complex, a community center, a university. In a not-too-distant future, the prison could be any of these things. They’re all just buildings, at the end of the day. The only difference is the investment weʼve made in one over the others.

Matthew Byrne

Matthew Byrne is a writer and translator based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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