« Do prisoners get better health care than poor? | Main | Lots of headlines about lots of death row delays »

June 14, 2009

A fascinating view of a different approach to prison architecture

14prison_190 This morning's New York Times includes this must-read article from the magazine section.  The piece is headlined "Behind Bars ... Sort Of," and it is focused on prison near the Austrian town of Leoben that is "a sleek structure made of glass, wood and concrete, stately but agile, sure in its rhythms and proportions: each part bears an obvious relationship to the whole. In the daytime, the corridors and rooms are flooded with sunshine. At night, the whole structure glows from within."  As the pictures in this slideshow highlight, the facility looks more like an Ikea store than a prison.  The article does a great job discussing not only the architecture of places in which people are imprisoned, but also the relationship between prison construction and crime rates and a bunch of other important punishment topics.

There are too many great passages in this article to quote them all, but he is a sample of just some of the interesting insights in this terrifically thought-provoking piece:

It sounds odd to say, but it’s nonetheless true: we punish people with architecture.  The building is the method.  We put criminals in a locked room, inside a locked structure, and we leave them there for a specified period of time.

It wasn’t always so.  Prison is an invention, and a fairly recent one at that: it wasn’t until the 18th century that incarceration became our primary form of punishment.  True, there have been dungeons and the like for quite some time, but they were generally for traitors and political enemies and, later, debtors.  More common criminals could expect other forms of penalty: execution, for example, and various kinds of corporal punishment; forced labor and conscription; public humiliation; the levying of fines; exile; loss of privileges and offices; and so on. We’ve come to consider most of these barbaric, unjust or wildly impractical, but their very existence should tend against the idea that settling with criminals by putting them in a building is a natural thing to do.

To be sure, there’s something about prisons that engages man’s imagination.  Alberti discussed them, Piranesi drew them, Jeremy Bentham proposed them.  But the imagination of incarceration rarely translates directly into design. Bentham’s Panopticon, a circular structure with an all-seeing guardhouse in the middle, was meant to show that surveillance was as powerful a method of control as shackles and door locks — an idea that has proved enticing to many an academic, though it was never built....

Does imprisonment work?  It seems like a bottom-line question, but the answer depends on what you want prisons to do, and that’s not an easy thing to decide.  Even if we assume that there are good and sensible reasons to incarcerate people, there remains some debate about what purpose is served.  Deterrence is often proposed as a goal, but no one really knows whether the prospect of incarceration gives would-be criminals pause, and in any case we quickly reach the realm of diminishing returns....

In fact, though most of us are reluctant to admit it, we mainly use prisons as storage containers, putting people there with the hope that, if nothing else, five years behind bars means five years during which they can’t commit more crimes. It’s called warehousing, and we do a lot of it....

[P]rominent architects aren’t lining up to take on the task of making prisons better.  Most ]architects] would be happy to design a courthouse, but few are quite as eager to build a penitentiary, though the two are merely opposite ends of a single system.  New prison construction is generally parceled out to a handful of large and more-or-less anonymous firms — a process that discourages innovation.  Whoever gets the commission is told how many beds are needed, what kinds of security, how much room for the clinic, the recreation area, the guardhouses.  They’re big-box prisons, as anonymous and uninflected as so many Wal-Marts.

June 14, 2009 at 01:03 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference A fascinating view of a different approach to prison architecture:


The Experience Awaits

The Eighth Amendment Requires It.


Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 14, 2009 1:12:45 PM

I would think there's a reason for not trying innovative prison architecture. Keeping people locked up and under control has a very conservative assumption basis. Every deviation from prior experience has to be studied and validated. This is one reason I see jails moving toward pre-fab units that are basically cast concrete rooms that are then assembled on site. Such a design allows the basic unit to be validated once and then re-used over and over.

Wal-Mart and other big box stores choose their look out of branding factors, prisons have different priorities.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 14, 2009 1:41:32 PM

Great article. It'll never happen in the U.S. -- not even a little of it. An American architect quoted in the piece hits it on the head:

He went on to describe what he’d like to see happen instead, and it was much like Leoben. “That works great,” he said. “It doesn’t cost significantly more to build, and you save on maintenance, vandalism, lawsuits, assaults, medical care.” But, he added sharply, “at the end of the day, my clients are my clients. We’ve been told we can’t make it look too good, because the public won’t accept it.”

Posted by: CN | Jun 14, 2009 3:41:52 PM

The prisons we have now are perfect if we assume that their purposes are punitive and incapacitory (if that is a word).

On the other hand, if we want to take seriously the alternate/complementary purposes of encouraging rehabilitation/growth/redemption and reducing recidivism, then I think we ought to take a look at some of the thoughtful architectural ideas examined in the article.

I think it is wrong to imply that the only way to have a secure prison is to build a lightless, dank, concrete-block warehouse. (I don't doubt, however, that this is the *cheapest* way, at least if the cost is measured only in up-front construction costs.) When is the last time a prisoner made a shank out of sunlight and clean air?

We all know that our physical environment can have a huge impact on our well-being and frame of mind. (For example, compare the experience of entering Penn Station and Grand Central Station.) It's not like we should build Grand Central Station for our convicts, but we're talking about a place where thousands of people, most of whom will live on the outside again, will spend years of their lives. If, say, a 20% (or even 100%) increase in up-front costs could (a) make these folks less likely to be disruptive while in the building; (b) more likely to adjust well upon release; and/or (c) less likely to reoffend, it would be not only morally but economically unreasonable to fail to consider it.

Posted by: What would Bentham Do? | Jun 14, 2009 3:59:06 PM

When Lovelace said that "stone walls do not a prison make" I think he was being poetic.

"because the public won’t accept it.”

Now there is a real leadership position. He wont make a stand because, ya know, if we build it they won't come. Nothing like the power of negative thinking now is there.

I suspect, however, that the reason the public doesn't accept it is contained in the prior post about health care. In this country, three hots and a cot is an improvement in their living situation for many people.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 14, 2009 4:30:41 PM

I think its a good idea to improve the environment in which inmates spend their time if that leads to better conduct by the inmates. But "It doesn’t cost significantly more to build, and you save on maintenance, vandalism, lawsuits, assaults, medical care" is an assumption, not an empirical fact. I'd particularly like to know how this prison will save costs related to medical care. That would be an interesting tale indeed.

Posted by: | Jun 14, 2009 10:28:57 PM

I think, from experience, the prisoners in that country know, act up, punch any of that glass all around, you may be found hanging in a short time. It will be called suicide. They may not have a death penalty, but they have a lot of suicide rate.

Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2000 Fall;30(3):272-81. Fifty years of prison suicide in Austria: does legislation have an impact? Fruehwald S, Frottier P, Eher R, Ritter K, Aigner M.

The absolute and relative frequency of suicides in jails and prisons in Austria over the 50 years from 1947 to 1996 is described. Important legislational changes regarding the criminal justice system are discussed with regard to possible consequences for the incidence of prisoners' suicides. Within the five decades a significant increase in the absolute numbers of jail and prison suicides was evident in spite of the considerable decrease in the total inmate population. Therefore, the suicide rate of inmates of correctional facilities increased significantly. Possible reasons for this phenomenon are discussed in relation to changes of the criminal law.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 15, 2009 5:28:17 AM

More than a terrific article - the discussion of a progressive philosophy of incarceration that deserves widespread attention.

Posted by: peter | Jun 15, 2009 7:31:03 AM

Bentham's dream prison must have inspired the round cell block in Joliet's Stateville prison, with four tiers of cells circling a guard tower and a substantial kill zone in between.

The Times article noted prison workers spend much of their lives in the same dreary, hostile surroundings as prisoners.

That point came up again and again in interviews our group of Illinois newspaper editors did with the warden and other employees years ago in a tour of the prison.

They obviously wanted us to teach our readers that what can be mistaken for coddling makes life more tolerable and less dangerous for prison staffs as well as prisoners.

Particularly memorable for me was a gruff-looking death row guard who teared up as he recalled the execution of an inmate he'd known more than 17 years.

Apparently Austria lacks the sorts of insecurities that seem to limit us to crime programs capable of making us look tough and stingy.

Posted by: John K | Jun 15, 2009 11:14:31 AM

For Congress' take on it:

Pub.L. 101-647, title XXIX, section 2907, Nov, 29, 1990, 104 Stat. 4915 provided that: "The Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (referred to as the 'Director') shall. to the extent practicable, take such measures as are appropriate to cut costs of construction. Such measures may include reducing expenditures for amenities including, for example, color television or pool tables."

Posted by: anon | Jun 15, 2009 5:16:11 PM

To comment #5: One simple way it saves on medical care is that better or 'nicer' prisons don't drive inmates crazy the way harsher ones do. Much the medical expense of prisons comes from treatment of mental illness -- some of which the prisoners bring with them to prison, but some of which they acquire in an environment that would, I think, drive most of us into profound depression, paranoia, sociopathy, etc.

Posted by: TCB | Jun 16, 2009 12:35:48 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB