Designing a jail

IN THE NEW INQUIRY, Monica Mohapatra writes about the uneasy appeal of design thinking to make better prisons. The piece is excellent. Read it.

Design approaches to jail have recently become appealing to ruling classes because they garner a profit from aesthetic changes that are easily branded as prison reform. Underlying this facade of reform is the fact that architectural improvements serve to make jails more palatable for a future where jails will neighbor more communities...

The Australian system of prisons is inhumane in many of the ways that the prison system in the United States is inhumane—though, thankfully, on a smaller scale. There as here, its inmates are disproportionately drawn from certain ethnic communities. It fosters recidivism. It is a place of violence and insecurity. It draws its justification from our urge to punish and discipline people, rather than help them or prevent them doing wrong. Its physical buildings are overcrowded, old, unsafe, unfit for purpose. It leaves inmates with a stigma (that of a former prisoner) unrelated to their actual crime, that hinders them from reintegrating with the community on release. Prisons are bad places.

Mohapatra's is an article inspired by prison abolitionism, a transformative movement I've got some sympathy for. Much of the 'crime' our society deals with in our courts and justice system really does result from inadequate alternative structures of support, and it shouldn't be the case that someone has to be locked in a cage to get help for their drug addiction, their gambling debt, their anger management. Abolitionism proposes something very different, a system designed to help people make better decisions in social structures that don't involve walls and bars.

Mohapatra's article points out rightly that every attempt to improve the design of a jail results, in the end, in a jail, part of an inherently compromised system, and a cog in a larger machine of punishment.

All the “large windows,” “open air,” “stainless steel,” and “natural light” will not help to change the violent legacy and practice of incarceration. You can’t design a jail away.

I think that's true as far as it goes, but the question of design though is a difficult one. Even an abolitionist approach is going to have to involve some technology to limit the freedom of people who break the law or in other ways unacceptably breach the boundaries of society. Whether it's walls and bars, or ankle bracelets and GPS, nobody proposes removing discipline entirely—and the question comes back to design and the architecture of punishment. Small communities can ostracise or punish members communally; modern developed societies with vast populations don't have that option. I'm unconvinced by 'transformative' arguments that seem to propose eliminating crime as a category from society, or suggesting that people will make better decisions given more social support, because crime and social breaches are part of what makes us human. Planners and architects and technologists and modernists and revolutionists have been fascinated for hundreds of years by schemes to improve people, utopias don't usually result in good outcomes.

I had a conversation with a guard [in a minimum security NSW prison] who insisted that every inmate was exactly alike to every member of the community, and that everyone should remember that in different circumstances, with a different upbringing, different choices, or being in a different place at the wrong time, they might exchange places. That's also true. That kind of Golden Rule principle application seems as important as a way to go about your day to day work as a guard, as to guide the design of justice systems, and prisons, and individual cells. Someone has to design the toilet that can't be used as a weapon, the shower that can't be used to self-harm, the mattress that can't catch fire, the rooms for family and friends to visit in.

Disclaimer: I have done heritage work for NSW prisons.

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