Monday, June 15, 2009

A Beautiful Cage

What's the function of prison? Or, more precisely, what's the function of a prison? I mean the building itself, not the theory behind locking people up. Obviously, there's the basic concept of separating law breakers (only the dangerous ones, hopefully) from the law abiding.

But is that it? In the United States, lots of people seem to think, either affirmatively or by acquiescence, that a prison is something more. It's a place of torment and punishment, both physical and mental. It's not enough to deprive people of their liberty, to lock them away in a cage. It's important that they suffer, as well.

Concerns about overcrowding and lax medical care go unheeded. Some folks take pleasure in knowing that certain classes of inmates (child molesters, say) will meet some rough justice at the hands of their peers. Prison rape is the subject of jokes throughout popular culture. Most folks just don't care. They're criminals, after all. They deserve what they get.

Against all that, consider this fascinating piece from this weekend's New York Times Magazine by Jim Lewis. It's about a prison in Leoben, Austria, that opened in 2004 and is the antithesis of most folks' perception of what a prison should look like:

Here’s a striking building, perched on a slope outside the small Austrian town of Leoben — 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.
Lewis got a tour of the complex with Josef Hohensinn, the architect who designed it. The description of the building (see the pictures accompanying the article) and the inmates make it sound like a pleasant place, certainly more pleasant then the prisons and jails I've been in. Hohensinn explains his design choices:
'They are criminals,' Hohensinn said to me, 'but they are also human beings. The more normal a life you give them here, the less necessary it is to resocialize them when they leave.' His principle, he said, was simple: 'Maximum security outside; maximum freedom inside.'
Seems like a sensible plan. As I've said repeatedly before, the vast majority of people who are sent to prison will one day get out. The best outcome for all involved - inmate, society at large, the taxpayers - is for him or her to successfully return to the world of the law abiding. So much of our current warehousing incarceration philosophy works against that goal. The design and locations of prisons play a part in that problem:
By contrast, new American prisons are usually built out in the countryside, where land and labor are cheaper, and security is easier to establish. And since site selection is the first step in design, everything stems from that. A rural prison needs no public face. It needn’t articulate any sense of civic pride or communal justice, because there’s no one around to see it, beyond the prisoners themselves, the guards and the occasional visitor.

There are other social costs. As Jonathan Simon, a law professor at Berkeley, pointed out to me, convicts tend to come from cities; guards do not. Culture clashes inevitably arise. Skilled labor — doctors, psychologists and the like — is harder to find in rural areas, and so are the volunteers who work in the many rehabilitation programs. The families of working-class and poor convicts often can’t afford to travel a few hundred miles to visit their relatives. As a result, prisoners have a harder time maintaining ties with the lives they left behind.
Given that recognition, one would hope that designers in the United States might follow Hohensinn's lead, but that's not the case. Jeff Goodale, the director of an Omaha firm that designs prisons, recognizes the benefits of such a design and the flaws of current ones. However:
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.'
Therein lies the rub. Results be damned, it's more important to keep the public from thinking the state is being "soft" on crime. Criminals can't have it too well off, after all. Which is a shame. As Lewis points out:
Everybody says this, or something like it: I guess crime does pay, after all. Or, That’s bigger than my apartment. (New Yorkers, in particular, tend to take this route.) Or, Maybe I should move to Austria and rob a couple of banks. It’s a reflex, and perfectly understandable, though it’s also foolish and untrue — about as sensible as looking at a new hospital wing and saying, Gee, I wish I had cancer.

To be more accurate, free people say these things. Prisoners don’t.
No matter how gilded, a cage is still a cage. We don't need to pile indignity upon indignity in order to make life in a cage feel like punishment. Because nothing will make it otherwise.

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