julia foulkes

The Carceral City

I walked through Crown Heights a few days ago and came across this odd mobile police unit. Students in my class knew exactly what it was: a M.U.S.T. – a mobile utility surveillance tower. It can be moved to a “place of interest,” a platform elevated from the base, flood lighting, infrared cameras – all monitored by one officer in the lifted hub, the driver’s seat of the van, or, I believe, remotely. If chaos ensues below, that person can call in extra troops with the push of a button from the encased hub, without having to exit to the street. The 21st century version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, on a city corner near you.

This semester we will be looking at New York through this lens: the carceral city. The New School’s Humanities Action Lab has launched a multi-year investigation of the history of incarceration. As the headquarters of a 16-university consortium, the New School is running courses on crime and punishment as well as building the design parameters – physical and digital – for a traveling exhibit built by students in universities across the country. Each university partner will pick a site near them to research – Fort Snelling in Minneapolis, which held Native Americans in the 19th century; the Elizabeth Detention Center near Rutgers/Newark, the place of entry of many undocumented immigrants landing at Newark Airport each day. By putting together these local sites we hope to build a deeply layered and revealing perspective on how the U.S. has become the world’s leader in incarceration. (We far outrank Russia and China! As John Oliver says, in what else do we lead China – except in debt to China?)

Incarceration is not my field of expertise, so I will be learning from my friend Micol Seigel, my colleagues Jeff Smith and Eric Anthamatten, the many university partners in the collective led by Liz Ševčenko, and, most of all, students in the class. The picture below projects the aim: how does our view of New York change if we put Rikers Island in the forefront?

Aerial view of Rikers Island.