A good friend walked into a room the other day, and asked the woman sitting next to me: “If you found yourself leading the revolution, would you, first, free everyone from the prisons?”
She thought about it for a bit, and answered — “No, I wouldn’t.”
He didn’t think he would either, but pointed out that this has been a major point in many major revolutions (e.g. the French Revolution), for it almost certainly gains you an instant sympathetic army.
I am pretty sure that I also wouldn’t, and haven’t yet found a “yes” answer in a variety of conversations I’ve had. But, does that mean that I believe in the US prison system? The one with the highest document incarceration rate in the world? Or that the justice system that has created that population is doing its job correctly?
I spent the rest of the day playing a game in my head that I like to call “Design Your Own Prison System”. What should a prison look like? Who should be in it? What does the design of a prison mean about what I believe about human nature?
One result of my musing was wondering why prisons are gray, concrete, and depressing. If the idea is to reform the human spirit, should the mold be a gloomy one? Would security in a prison be threatened by having art on the walls? Could a prison be beautiful? Is the concept of prison fundamentally flawed? Is the answer to abolish the conventional concept of a prison entirely?
In the interim, I’ve been introduced to Christopher Alexander’s”Pattern Language (thanks, Dervala!) which is a phenomenal masterpiece of understanding human relationships in the context of architecture, which examines recurring designs in building, and how they shape communities. What would the “pattern language” of prisons be?
Another angle is the treatment of surveillance in the conception of prisons. To be “watched”, after being “caught”, vis the Panopticon. I can’t actually imagine this turning me into a reformed, repentant, or better person. Is this just that the societal moral coordinate system has been relocted since the heyday of the panopticon?
I’ve had discussions since then about the high efficacy of work furlough programs, which have the added benefit of producing prison-system graduates who aren’t totally crippled at operating in the outside world.
In researching this topic, I came across the Delancey St. Foundation (thanks, Kragen!), an intriguing organization founded in the 1970s as a residential rehabilitation program for, and run by, substance abusers and convicts, to reintegrate into society, through training programs and by working in and running various businesses that, in turn, fund the program. It seems to have been highly successful, to date, and I agree with its treatment of rehabilitation, and in particular that one can be sentenced to it, as an alternative to prison. Would only that these ideas might spread further than progressive San Francisco.