The New Geography of the Carceral State

As the urban poor are displaced to metropolitan peripheries, policing and punishment have become more suburban.

In 1979, the Think Tank—a group of citizen scientists incarcerated at a maximum-security prison in New York—published a report popularly known as the “Seven Neighborhoods Study.” Drawing on meticulous empirical research, the Think Tank found that 75 percent of all people incarcerated in the state of New York came from the same urban neighborhoods: Harlem and the Lower East Side in Manhattan, the South Bronx, South Jamaica in Queens, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and East New York in Brooklyn. These neighborhoods were poor, hyperpoliced, and predominantly Black and Latinx. One direct result of this geographically unequal distribution of policing and punishment was that 85 percent of people incarcerated in New York State were Black and Latinx.1

In Punishing Places: The Geography of Mass Imprisonment, sociologist Jessica T. Simes builds upon and extends the Think Tank’s work but comes to a very different conclusion: today, the majority of incarcerated people come not from urban neighborhoods but from small cities and suburbs. For decades, the city has been understood as the site at which policing and carceral capture take place. Punishing Places introduces a new geography of punishment in the US, one that is decidedly suburban and nonmetropolitan.

The context for this dramatic transformation of American punishment is the “suburbanization of poverty,” better understood as what Ananya Roy calls the “racial banishment” of poor people of color from urban neighborhoods.2 The displacement of the urban poor to metropolitan peripheries and smaller cities has remade geographies of poverty in the US. Between 2000 and 2015, the population living in poverty in the suburbs of big metro areas grew by 57 percent; in smaller metro areas, poverty rates grew at double the pace of both urban and rural places.3

To make sense of these new geographies of racialized dispossession, Simes draws on Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of “forgotten places” as “fractured, spatially discontinuous, neither urban or rural, [but] between.” These places are “abandoned and intensely occupied by the state.” Through spatial, quantitative, and qualitative research, Punishing Places asks how and why incarceration is concentrated in specific, nonurban neighborhoods.

Punishing Places focuses on the state of Massachusetts, where people from nonmetropolitan areas have been the majority of the incarcerated population for at least the last 20 years. As a doctoral student, Simes worked as an unpaid intern in the Massachusetts Department of Correction, which alerted her to a startling shift: intake data showed that most incarcerated people did not come from Boston’s “inner city,” as social scientists assumed. She worked with geographic information about where people in state prisons between 2009 and 2017 lived prior to their incarceration and found that nonurban census tracts containing just 15 percent of the population accounted for half of all prison admissions. (Simes does not address her decision to work within the Department of Corrections, a missed opportunity to discuss how and when researchers decide to collaborate with carceral institutions.) These places are disproportionately Black and poor, and their higher rates of imprisonment are not explained by a higher incidence of crime. Instead, higher rates of incarceration are produced by racist state violence: more policing, more arrests, and more punitive prosecution. Simes’s careful engagement with this data builds to a compelling central argument: though domestic carceral geographies may be transformed, race remains the “organizing mechanism producing durable inequality in place and punishment.”

That Simes works in Massachusetts reveals the terrible paradox of police and prison reform. Even in ostensibly progressive states with relatively low rates of incarceration, punishment specifically and continuously targets people who are Black, Latinx, and poor. The book concentrates on six Massachusetts cities, each with a prison admission rate at least three times the populationwide rate: Holyoke, Springfield, Fall River, Lawrence, Brockton, and Lynn. Prison admissions from these places have continued to rise even as rates in larger metro areas, like Boston, have decreased. Simes makes a case for a spatial approach to the study of punishment: carceral violence, she argues, is a place-based harm that targets not only criminalized individuals but also whole communities.

Incarceration is often studied demographically, at the level of population, state, or nation. Punishing Places instead draws on data from census tracts, suburbs, and small cities,4 scales of analysis that allow us to answer the crucial question: Why are some places—and the people who live in them—punished so much more than others?

The book offers three explanations. First, the vast majority of cities in the US have fewer than 50,000 residents; most people live in small cities and suburbs. These “suburban and satellite cities” are “geographically isolated and resource deprived.” These segregated spaces are policed and surveilled, characterized by punitive and expansive justice systems—like Ferguson, Missouri. In the wake of Mike Brown’s murder, a Department of Justice report indicated that a staggering 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants in Ferguson, a city of just 21,000.

Today, the majority of incarcerated people come not from urban neighborhoods but from small cities and suburbs.

Second, these forgotten places often have their own governments, which usually means harsher prosecution. Far from progressive reform in big cities, conservative prosecutors sentence more aggressively and are subject to less oversight.

Third, and finally, forgotten places are deindustrialized and devalued. Unlike metro city centers, they are not yet sites of financial speculation. Geographically isolated, small cities and suburbs are far from health care services, reliable public transit, and jobs that pay a living wage. These neighborhoods are, in general, not particularly glamorous or easily accessible from the downtowns of major metro areas. This perhaps also explains why the field of carceral studies has been so slow to adapt to this transformation; the suburbs are not widely understood to be exciting field sites.

To analyze these geographies of divestment and dispossession, Simes introduces the concept of “punishing places.” This has a double meaning. Prisons don’t just punish criminalized individuals, they punish places. And to live in a punishing place is to live with incarceration as a “normal” experience that not only harms criminalized individuals but also functions as a kind of place-based collective punishment, enforced through police terror and disappearance. For example, a single neighborhood lost a staggering 1,000 human years to incarceration between 2009 and 2017, even as prison admissions nationwide slowed.

Simes explains place-based vulnerability to punishment through a parallel to other kinds of place-based harm. Just as people in some places are more vulnerable to flooding or to toxic contamination, people in some places are more vulnerable to having a family member incarcerated or shot by police. This inexact comparison makes an important point: whereas researchers of the carceral state often focus on the vulnerability of types of people rather than the vulnerability of certain places to hazard, Simes instead calls for a “science of punishment vulnerability” that includes not only things like earthquakes or industrial waste but also police terror or incarceration.


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Punishing Places contributes to a broader conversation within carceral studies that analyzes domestic policing as warfare that, as the anthropologist Orisanmi Burton writes, “targets Black radical activism, social/familial life, and the interiority of Black subjectivity.” He argues that the catastrophic ruptures and disappearances produced by the prison “should be understood not as an incidental byproduct of a poorly designed carceral regime but as a tactic of war and a condition of genocide.”5 Indeed, Eddie Ellis, coauthor of the Think Tank’s “Seven Neighborhoods Study,” was a Black Panther political prisoner, targeted by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) for “neutralization.” Convicted of a murder he did not commit, Ellis survived the massacre at Attica, studied with and organized the Think Tank, and dedicated his life to resisting and disassembling the carceral state.6

The mechanism for collective punishment is spatial, so the remedy too must be spatial. Instead of instituting police reform or new programs for “at-risk” youth, Simes asks: What if we simply punished these places less? Policing and incarceration, this book shows, are not simply responses—imperfect but necessary, as the reformist line goes—to the criminalization of unruly individuals. Instead, they are genres of place-based and racialized collective punishment. If we understand policing and confinement as modes of racialized warfare, only the abolition of the carceral state will bring us justice.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

  1. Francis X. Clines, “Ex-Inmates Urge Return to Areas of Crime to Help,” New York Times, December 23, 1992.
  2. Ananya Roy, “Dis/possessive Collectivism: Property and Personhood at City’s End,” Geoforum, no. 80 (2017), A1–A11.
  3. Elizabeth Kneebone, “The Changing Geography of US Poverty,” Brookings Institution, February 15, 2017.
  4. Simes defines “small cities” as places with a population under 250,000 but usually less than 100,000 (p. 41).
  5. Orisanmi Burton, “Captivity, Kinship, and Black Masculine Care Work under Domestic Warfare,”American Anthropologist, vol. 123, no. 3 (2021), pp. 621–32.
  6. Orisanmi Burton, “Eddie Ellis and the Struggle for Black Freedom,” CounterPunch, August 8, 2014.
Featured Image: Photograph by Can Pac Swire / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)