Mapping mass incarceration: Scripps alum Mariah Tso discusses community-driven cartography

Students fill crowed room and listen to presentation
At her talk “Mapping Mass Incarceration,” Diné cartographer Mariah Tso SC ’14 discussed how LA maps reproduce carceral systems. (Emma Jensen • The Student Life)

This Monday, the 5C Prison Abolition Collective (5C PrisAb) held a talk titled “Mapping Mass Incarceration” at Scripps College’s Motley Coffeehouse. Guest speaker Mariah Tso SC ’14, a Diné cartographer and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist who currently works at Million Dollar Hoods (MDH), spoke about critical cartography and MDH’s effort to create a community-driven digital archive.

A Scripps alumni, Tso went on to get a masters in GIS from Redlands University. First introduced to the field at a Pomona College class called Urban Planning, she wanted to use the skills gained from her studies to make an impact.

MDH is a university-based and community-driven research project mapping and documenting the human and fiscal costs of mass incarceration in Los Angeles.

At the Oct. 23 event, Tso explained that maps present LA’s carceral landscape through constructed zones, which visually represent the areas heavily affected by mass incarceration.

“There is a dangerous assumption that maps are neutral,“ Tso said to an audience of 5C students and faculty. “Maps make reality just as much as they represent it.”

Tso further commented on how maps have revealed the tendency to misreport data by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). According to Tso, the LAPD reports that violent crimes like rape and murder are driving mass incarceration, but in areas in which arrests are the highest, maps show that drug possession and DUIs are the top two charges.

“This led to the need for a digital archive, exposing the injustices the LAPD has perpetrated against communities for generations, using the department’s own records along with a collection of oral histories and community donated personal items or artifacts,” Tso said.

This archive is part of MDH’s mission to condense the separation between art, personal histories and data. In working on it, Tso is utilizing her position as a data scientist but also remaining critical of the sense of authority and objectivity that this position grants her.

“There’s an assumption that a scientific gaze maintains objectivity, but that distance oftentimes doesn’t serve the people who are impacted,” Tso said. “I’m most interested in collapsing that distance and shattering these illusions that we have of objectivity.”

Instead of operating from a scientific gaze, in which certain kinds of knowledge are valued over others, Tso and other employees at MDH work as what they call a “collective algorithm,” decentralizing state-sanctioned power and putting it into the hands of communities.

“We’re weaving together our various skills and knowledge to take back 2,984 folders, holding 4,800 files, which accounts to about 400,000 pieces of paper that the LAPD did not want exposed,” Tso said. “We are digitizing them and exposing the impact of mass incarceration in Los Angeles.”

Throughout the presentation, Tso laced in works by artists, including a quote by Driftpile Cree Nation poet, scholar and author Billy-Ray Belcourt: “Anybody who thinks they can understand how terrible the terror has been, without understanding how beautiful the beauty has been against the grain of the terror, is wrong.”

“After all, our stories don’t just contain terror,” Tso said. “There is beauty in our collective resistance, the freedom we never relinquished. We have always fought back.”

In the fight to end mass incarceration, Tso believes that redirecting funds — such as those given to the LAPD — is imperative.

“We live in a system that is treating substance abuse and addiction through policing and incarceration and we’re paying millions to do it,” Tso said. “Imagine what that amount of money would do in places like substance abuse services, counseling, education, housing services and institutions that build healthy and thriving individuals, families and communities.”

Audience member Bastian Collins PZ ’27 said he was most impressed by the way Tso communicated all of this information to the audience.

“Through the poetry that she weaved in, the pages of keywords, the images of herself, the interactive maps, it was phenomenal,” Collins said. “It effectively communicates the emotion our presenter had and how much stake she had in the matters that she was talking about.”

Jacqueline Tsai SC ’25, the steering lead of 5C PrisAb and one of the event organizers, also commented on the effectiveness of the presentation, expressing her hopes that the talk left an impact on its audience.

“I hope that [from the talk], folks start to understand the oppressive power of conventional archives and the revolutionary power of abolitionist, community focused archives and maps,” Tsai said.

Tsai also explained how students can also take action through 5C PrisAb, where they can learn about the prison industrial complex, the current participatory role in the PIC and how to become active abolitionists.

“In a space like the Claremont Colleges, with million-dollar endowments, it is imperative that we use our funds, privilege and power to act radically and compassionately,” Tsai said.

Students interested in learning more about the 5C Prison Abolition Collective can follow them on Instagram @5cprisonabolition. Additionally, students can view Million Dollar Hood’s work here.

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