Design Your Own Prison System: Architecture and Moral Turpitude

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.

5 thoughts on “Design Your Own Prison System: Architecture and Moral Turpitude

  1. I think the conclusion you reach on how to (or even whether to) reform prisons depends highly on the reason for prison. There are a variety of purposes of criminal imprisonment, and each would drive a different prison design. A cheerful architecture, for example, would support rehabilitation, but probably not deterrence.

    Or the first part of this page, which lists the five reasons:

  2. you may have seen [this]( by Mako. It seems the current prison systems seems to severely limit communication — monopoly contacts with phone carriers for extra-high prices, no email, limited computer access, etc. The affect is to limit connection to the outside world that might include friends, family, support people who can provide incentives towards positive social change. Being isolated is not helpful emotionally, psychologically, job-wise, etc. There are OER and other useful things they can’t access like Khan Academy,WebMd or who knows what. These restrictions don’t seem to stop mob bosses or drug dealers from operating inside prision, so who does it really hurt?

  3. a note from the previous tenants:

    Before our white brothers came to civilize us we had no jails. Therefore we had no criminals. You can’t have criminals without a jail. We had no locks or keys, and so we had no thieves. If a man was so poor that he had no horse, tipi or blanket, someone gave him these things. We were too uncivilized to set much value on personal belongings. We wanted to have things only in order to give them away. We had no money, and therefore a man’s worth couldn’t be measured by it. We had no written law, no attorney or politicians, therefore we couldn’t cheat. We were in a really bad way before the white man came, and I don’t know how we managed to get along without the basic things which, we are told, are absolutely necessary to make a civilized society.

  4. I was just looking at the analytics for some of my writing and noticed this page came up as a traffic source. Thanks to Miss Outlier for the link posting on my criminal punishment article. I put a link to my Facebook Attorney at law page here. I hope anyone that liked the writing in the article above will visit and like my that FB page for other writing from time to time. Thanks, Dave.

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