Kristin Doughty and Joshua Dubler are collaborative ethnographers and associate professors of anthropology and religion, respectively, at the University of Rochester. Their work in the field of carceral geography aims to illuminate the prison’s central and unexamined role in quotidian U.S. life. Their traveling exhibit, Going Upstate, concentrates on the prison towns of the upstate New York region and endeavors to build relationships capable of moving us beyond prisons into what follows after.

essay from the gallery guide for the Going Upstate exhibit at the Hartnett Gallery (March 2023) at the University of Rochester:

[P]risons sit on the edge—at the margins of social spaces, economic regions, political territories, and fights for rights. This apparent marginality is a trick of perspective, because, as every geographer knows, edges are also interfaces. For example, even while borders highlight the distinction between places, they also connect places into relationships with each other and with non-contiguous places. So too with prisons: the government-organized and -funded dispersal of marginalized people from urban to rural locations suggests both that problems stretch across space in a connected way and that arenas for activism are less segregated than they seem. Viewed in this way, we can see how “prison” is actually in the middle of the muddle that confronts all modestly educated working people and their extended communities—the global supermajority—at the dawn of the twenty-first century. – Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (2007)

The animating idea of “carceral geographies” is this: when you live in a country that cages two million people, the widespread feeling that prisons exist someplace “over there” is half social engineering and half illusion. Yes, for generations prisons have been sited out in the country, and people are shuttled across the state to fill them. But none of this is far afield. The prison’s reach may be felt all around us: in missing family and friends; in the public and private interests that comprise what Angela Davis called “the prison industrial complex;” in the “crime” around which so much of our politics is predatorily oriented; and in the shriveled notion of “justice” that for most Americans marks that concept’s limits of possibility. But carceral geographies doesn’t stop with diagnosis and demystification. Rather, by centering the prison and its many impacts on how we live today, a carceral geographies approach looks to foster new solidarities.

Prisons are shunted to the seeming periphery, but knowledge about prisons tends to circulate from places where capital is concentrated. Gilmore is at the CUNY Graduate Center, Davis at UC Santa Cruz. Those of us who live “upstate,” where the prison’s impact on American economics, politics, and culture is at its most explicit, have something special to contribute to the project of carceral geographies. Going Upstate is an effort to map the relevant terrain and to build relationships capable of helping move us beyond prisons into what follows after.

The Rochester region is no generic prison land. Here, local history is world history. Auburn was the prototype for the modern prison; Elmira was the first reformatory; and Attica’s 1971 uprising is, in competing ways, a landmark in time. Going Upstate gesturesto how the region’s fabled prisons came to be where they are amidst western settler expansion and the canals and railroads that would deliver the heyday of American capitalism. Traces of industry remain in crumbling bricks and blackened boxes of noodles. But by the 1980s prison building boom, when towns like Attica, Albion, and Mt. Morris each got a second prison, that landscape of production was largely gone. Globalization’s other side was capital’s abandonment of regions like ours. Whereas once the promise of a good union job that could support a family would lead a man to industry, henceforth one’s best bet was in corrections. Meanwhile, the consolidation of agriculture made family farms harder to sustain and relegated farm work to a class of migrant laborers, who, in the decades to follow, would themselves become targets for the ascendent carceral state.

What is a prison for we who live among them? The answer is stranger than we would have imaged. In a prison town, as Going Upstate explores, prisons are at once ubiquitous and invisible, showcased but obscured, a rock for civic identity sometimes, but at others, arrestingly, not at all. A prison is a badge, but it is also a stigma. A job as a correctional officer is at once a great job and an awful job, and a prison-based economy is 100% recession proof…until it isn’t. Being a prison town isn’t easy, but in an era of prison closures, and with no obvious economic alternatives on offer, the prospect of ceasing to be one can be frightening.

A “prison town” is a discrete category of thing. If, in the contemporary US, each and every one of us has some tie to the prison, in places like Auburn and Attica a person has ten. But might not the same be said of certain communities in the city of Rochester? After all, with the highest incarceration rate in the state, where over one percent of the city’s population is currently in state prison, is not Rochester too, quite literally, a prison town?

The objects, images, and passages in Going Upstate emerge from our class, “The Cultural Politics of Prison Towns,” which we are currently teaching for the fifth time. The class is a collaborative ethnography lab. Student groups have done research in Albion, Alden, Auburn, Attica, Batavia, Elmira, Mt. Morris, and Rochester. Some years we’ve had themes: politics, religion, “flight maps” (that is, the regional flow of bodies and ideas in and out of prisons), Covid, kinship, environment, criminalization, and decarceration. The evolving model is only as strong as our students who, in aggregate, are intrepid, astute, and, like us, in no way disinterested.   

As a method, ethnography is history at the frontier of the present, and in the five plus years we’ve been working on this project together, we have moved through history with our students. At no time was this truer than in the fall of 2020 when, due to the pandemic, we saw our students only over zoom, except for on those late summer evenings when the city came alive to protest the killing of Daniel Prude and its cover-up by the Rochester Police Department and the Mayor. In those evenings, the abolitionist future was already, in palpable ways, present, and we commemorate that moment as a marker of our ongoing commitment to helping craft a civic culture that fosters “public safety” not through violence, but through care.

The project has intersected as well with issues of criminalization on campus. When, in 2018, we made the case to the Faculty Senate against the Department of Public Safety’s (DPS) proposed expansion, we were surprised by students in our class, who, unbeknownst to us, had organized to occupy the session. Never have we experienced more intense people power than that which our students manifested in Douglass that November evening. In 2021, with the support of the Emergency Department’s (ED) Human Subjects Review Board, our students interviewed medical providers and others in the ED to better understand how and why it was that DPS was arresting on average more than one person every other day.

Communities are rich and irreducibly complicated, but across our varied terrain, the racialized criminalization of poverty is a throughline. DPS does not report demographic data, but our colleagues and neighbors understand what sorts of bodies in the ED are prejudged to be a threat. These dynamics play out a taken-for-granted county wide pattern: the suburbs get schools; the city gets policed. Out in the towns, meanwhile, where the majority of those who are criminalized are white, a carceral stigma adheres to the rare majority Black neighborhood like Auburn’s Orchard Street, which the locals jokingly call “O-Block,” or, in a town like Mt. Morris, to the recipients of social services, who are presumed to be non-white outsiders.

In recent years, with works such as Cameron Rowland’s 91020000 (2016), which centers Corcraft, the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervisions’ (DOCCS) in-house manufacturing arm, and Nicole Fleetwood’s Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (2020), the phenomena of mass human caging in America have belatedly come to museum and gallery spaces. As the edges of our images, crumpled from falls after a failed first hanging can attest, we are not artists. But we are thrilled to exhibit Going Upstate in the Hartnett Gallery. We hope that this will be the first of many exhibitions in galleries, libraries, and other fora across the region and state.

We are eager for the conversations that we hope this exhibition can occasion, and with an eye toward future iterations of the show, we are eager for your feedback. To give it to us, please use the QR code below. Given the present assemblage, we are especially eager for stories and insights, and potentially objects and images, from Rochester residents and from those whose primary experience of an area prison town came as an incarcerated people.

The exhibit’s form, its montage pairings of objects and images to passages from our fieldnotes archive, emerged in dialogue with our current class. The title emerged from a February dinner gathering of the Rochester Education Justice Initiative (REJI). Our brain trust of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and comrades were struggling to understand what precisely was going on with a colleague who had recently been reincarcerated, and was, we believed, being held downtown at the county jail. Someone asked: “Is he still downtown or has he gone upstate?” The designation was jarring: “upstate,” meaning “having been sent to a State prison,” here implied a movement down to Elmira. But so long as we banish and cage, even in Rochester, though decidedly here, “upstate” will also remain elusively elsewhere.

Kristin Doughty and Joshua Dubler Rochester, NY March 2023


Throughout the learning and exhibition process, we have been grateful for the time, engagement, openness, and support of so many people, both named and unnamed, on campus and off, in Rochester and throughout the region, with us and our students. This project’s greatest value and potential lies in the relationships we share with all of you. Thank you.

Funding for this research and exhibit comes from National Science Foundation Cultural Anthropology Grant #2048396 and the University of Rochester Humanities Center. The project was incubated with support from a University of Rochester University Research Award (shared with Precious Bedell, Joel Burges, Kara Finnigan, Evelyne Leblanc-Roberge, Diane Morse, and Dena Swanson) and a Teaching Innovation Grant from University of Rochester’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. The project’s digital ethnographic archive was co-designed, built, and maintained with the help of Emily Sherwood and Blair Tinker at the University of Rochester Digital Scholarship Lab and Wade Keye, Andrew Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow and Visual and Cultural Studies graduate student. The project’s digitial exhibition archive was designed and built by Visual and Cultural Studies graduate student, Danielle Genevro. The complicated logistics of ethnographic research with students over the past five years has only been achievable because of generous work by Anthropology Department Manager Donna Mero.

University of Rochester Student Researchers

2018: Sadyn Angeles, Morgan Barter, Paige Brugger, Amanda Cabal, Skylar Cerbone, Jasmin Edjang, Sean Fang, Emerson Finkle, Alexandra Fischgrund, Jerrell Gray, Waliyah Johnson, Yassine Kaouadji, Phoebe Konecky, Alexandra Mesropov, Allison Morningstar, Amina N’Gambwa, Joe Orman, Ruki Prathivadhi-Bha, Winston Scott, Jingxuan Wang, Keneon Williams

2019: Mateo Alexander, Alexandra Brooks, Ravita Choudhury, Yaa Adenike Cunningham, James Dietz, Danielle Douglas, Tara Eagan, Maria Favella, Jamal Holtz, Ahmed Shaim Mahir, Eugene Nichols, Hannah O’Connor, Fayola Richardson, Jessica Silverstein, Samiksha Vittalraj, Lindsay Wrobel, Natalie Ziegler, Iris Zhou, Zhongyi Zuo

2020: Efua Agyare-Kumi, Ella Apykhtim, Lila Balistrieri, Elizabeth Banda, Lydia Bernard, Megan Browne, Daisha Danson, Antonia Demopoulos, Morgan Farrow, Glenda Garay, Anna Givens, Adam Hollies, Jesse Johnston, Julia King, Amanda Liang, Evon Mahesh, Jorge Morales, Lia Nelson, Catherine Ramsey, Tamera Shaw, Katherine Thomas, Andrew Vascellaro, Sarah Whitehead, Hannah Yeager

2021: Asia Barry, Olivia Carrara, Emily Davis, Dekovas Finley, Madeleine Fordham, Aydan Fusco, Alexander Glazier, Kathryn Hardin, Suzan Hoffman, Jaenelle Huxlin, Jane Lebowitz, Isabel Leslie, Henry Litsky, Lauren Lopez, Ryan Maciel, John Maqui, Denise Navarette, Thomas Oddo, Lucy Oh, Carolyn Richards, Annie Rosenow, Imaan Salimi, Sissi Sarante, Tessa Shlonsky, Ivette Sierra, Isaiah Smith, Victoria Ter-Ovanesyan, Andre Tulloch, Yama Yan Xu

2023: Shane Bombace, Theodore Chapman, Jessica Charest, Alisa Chen, Guy Emrich, Anna Gardner, Mandela Gonzalez-Palmer, Kayla Howard, Nai’a Keith-Handschuh, Justine Lam, Sebastian Lauer, Cameron McCabe, Abhiyudh Rajput, Chelsea Rodriguez, Erika Schneible, Elisa Stefani, Sunahra Tanvir, Sarah Tierney, Taylor Tyburski, Hannah Witkin, Haven Worley

Press and Publications

Kristin Doughty and Joshua Dubler, “On Prison Towns and Ethnographic Entanglements,” Anthropology Now, 14: 1-2, (January 2023): 39-50.

“…this project aims to understand how the presence of so many prisons around our University of Rochester campus in Upstate New York (35 prisons, jails, juvenile detention facilities and immigration detention facilities are within a two-hour radius) shapes everyday life in the region.”

David Wilcox, “The Impact of Incarceration: Auburn Part of Study on Cultural Politics of Prison Towns” in The Citizen, April 12, 2020.

“‘Our hypothesis is that the presence of high concentration of prisons has some impact on how we think about everyday life, the same way having lots of lakes does. But what are those impacts and how do we understand them?’ Doughty said. ‘Are there ideas that get normalized by the presences of walls, or by being surrounded by people who work in the industry.'”