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Prisons in the sky

Mar 23, 2010

by Dan Van Ness

One of the persistent themes in penology has been the idea that architecture can help produce transformation in people. From the monastery-like isolation of prisoners in the Walnut Street Jail and its successor the Eastern State Penitentiary in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries to the Auburn model allowing for aggregate work but individual isolation, to Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, to today's Supermax prisons, form has indeed followed function.

Now eVolo magazine has awarded first place in its 2010 Skyscraper Competition to Malaysian architectural students for their Vertical Prison, conceived of as somehow floating high above the ground with elevator pods transporting prisoners, staff, food and so forth between the prison and earth.

Prisoners would work in farms to supply earth with organic products. Those who behaved well would be given cells with windows pointed to the earth so they would be motivated to reform themselves.

The naivete of the design (the prison floats without support in the sky) and reform strategy (the architecture students do not appear to have researched the history of prisons) is remarkable, as is that of the judges of the competition.

Three observations:

First, there are some excellent resources for those wanting to study fads in the design of prisons.

Norman Johnston's Forms of Constraint: History of Prison Architecture, is a classic work demonstrating how societal attitudes toward prisoners and their reform has influenced the design of the structures created to house them. 

In 1973, Bill Nagel wrote The New Red Barn, a description and critique of those who put their trust in prison architecture. The title came from a prison warden who was asked what style of prison design he thought worked best. His response was that the physical structure of the prison was far less important than its staff. With the right staff, he argued, he could run a prison in a red barn.

Nagel's key message was that the focus on prison architecture began with the assumption that it was necessary to separate offenders from society. In response, he called for a moratorium on all new prison construction while efforts were made to explore community-based correctional programmes for offenders.

Second, although there is little that is vertical in the Vertical Prison other than the elevators, its design conveys a clear message about prisoners. They must be removed from society. Like penal islands and correctional facilities built in isolated parts of countries, the emphasis is on separation in the hope that work and their separation from terra firma will cause them to change.

Third, it is interesting to speculate on what architectural requirement might be for a city or country relying on restorative justice philosophy. We spent some time on this in preparing the initial report for the RJCity project.

We concluded that it would be important to have many places available for victim care and for conducting meetings between offenders and their victims or surrogate victims. One would want new designs for courtrooms in which victims can bring their own attorneys at various stages in the adjudication process.

Residential facilities would be needed for both voluntary and involuntary confinement of offenders in Houses of Refuge. Victims would have Safe Houses available to them for protection and/or for help in recovery.

While there would be need for some amount of secure facilities, these would be built within cities and oriented toward the eventual release of most offenders.

Architecture is important, but not the most important thing. The philosophy behind the design is critical. The Vertical Prison reflects a philosophy of segregation, of exclusion. Similar architectural approaches haven't worked because the philosophy is wrong. The solution to crime comes not by removing offenders, but by planning the best way to integrate them into the community.

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Lynette says:
Mar 23, 2010 05:18 PM

I agree that the &quot;vertical prison&quot; design comes from the idea that separating people is necessary for &quot;transformation.&quot; The reality is that this says more about the community or society. We are saying to the offender, &quot;You do not deserve to be a part of us until you change your behaviour.&quot; Yet, what are we doing to actually help people change behaviour? <br /> <br />One problem is that prisons are closed institutions with few people really understanding them, the people who are there, and what happens inside them. So, along with building prisons close to or in communities, we must also engage community members inside the daily life of the prison. There are several ways of doing this: <br />&nbsp;-- religious programmes <br />&nbsp;-- cultural enrichment <br />&nbsp;-- restorative programmes that create space for dialogue between prisoners and victims/community members <br />&nbsp;-- mentoring programmes <br /> <br />Partnership between community members with the correctional services can help create connections between individuals. In this way, prisoners can build prosocial relationships and learn how to live as positive members of a community. <br /> <br /> <br />

Martin Wright
Martin Wright says:
Mar 24, 2010 02:22 PM

A logical progression from the obscene supermax prisons. It shows how detached architects can be from real people, My wife taught in a school built mainly of glass, which was a nightmare: it leaked in winter and was an oven in summer, but it won architectural prizes and architects protested when it was pulled down.

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