Photo Essay Reveals The Explosive Growth Of California’s Prison System

California leads the nation in new prisons. But it’s hard to comprehend the scope of the system until you’ve seen it.

It’s frequently noted–if not really noticed–that America’s prison system has grown explosively over the past three decades. “It’s been breathtaking,” writes Josh Begley, the NYU grad student behind Internet phenomena such as The Listserve. “There are over 161,000 people locked up in California alone.” Begley believes that to truly comprehend the statistics, we need to see them. “Despite all the numbers, it can still be hard to grasp the size of the problem,” he explains.


His online visual archive of the state’s prisons, PrisonCount, is an attempt to visualize the size of California’s sprawling penitentiary system, which leads the nation in growth. The simple site provides a matrix of high-resolution images of every prison run by the state, alongside maps and links, with a single goal–visibility.

“Having grown up in California, and even taught classes at San Quentin, It’s astonishing to me how little I’ve had to think about the role prisons play in shaping our economy and our landscape,” Begley tells Co.Design. He was inspired by the 2007 book Golden Gulag, in which author Ruth Gilmore examines the remarkable growth of the California system through the lens of state-sanctioned racism and socioeconomic upheaval. Gilmore argues that the state is profiting from the incarceration of young inmates, most of whom have been convicted according to the state’s harsh “three strike” rule, which says that anyone who is convicted of a felony on top of two prior convictions must serve a 25-to-life term. The result, of course, is a prison system that the budget-stricken state uses as a financial crutch.

Far from being an argument about criminality, Begley’s point is simple: we should be paying more attention to the way state governments are expanding (and profiting from) the prison-industrial complex. “I wanted to provide a visual dimension to a conversation that often traffics in numbers and acronyms,” he explains. He plans to add more facilities to the list, and hopes people will embed PrisonCount on their own sites.

[Image: Sebastian Knight/Shutterstock]


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.