Login  |  View Cart  |  Search

Prison Design and Control

Prisons are not simply about detaining those who break the law; they also function to inculcate social rules into those who have not been successfully disciplined in other institutions (such as the family, school, and workplace). In "Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison", French philosopher Michel Foucalt analyzed the famous model prison proposed by the 19th Century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham's "Panopticon" is a circular building with a central guard tower that can look into all the cells lining the perimeter. The cells are kept illuminated but the observation tower is dark, so that prisoners can be observed at all times but can not tell when they are being watched. The goal is for them to learn to act as if they are constantly under surveillance. Once this self-discipline is instilled, prisoners can be released into society with the capacity to regulate their own behavior through a socially beneficial form of paranoia. As Foucalt puts it, "as opposed to the ruined prisons, littered with mechanisms of torture...the Panopticon presents a cruel, ingenious cage...it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form."

im_eastern-state.jpgThe Panopticon design had immense influence on early prison design, such as at Pennsylvania's Eastern State (built in 1832), where hallways radiate from a central observation point. Eastern State failed to realize Bentham's system, however: because of the hallway and cell plan, prisoners were only observed when guards walked past their cell doors. Modern prisons much more closely achieve the Panopticon's goal of total surveillance, using "pods" of radially orientated cells around an open dayroom with a central observation point to achieve nearly total visibility. The addition of new surveillance technologies multiplies the ubiquitous but unseen observer: video cameras peer around corners, and laminated glass ceilings and doors allow the disciplining gaze of the guards to access every space prisoners can inhabit (while protecting the physical presence of the guards themselves). As observed in prison history, the central goal of prisons is always to maintain control - that is what remains when other functions are lost through neglect, budget cuts, or intentional harshness. The best-intentioned reformist designs have believed that more complete control of prisoners through design would be used only to further higher goals such as religious reawakening and inner reflection. But in fact control is an end in itself, and prisons just recreate the powerlessness of the member of poor and oppressed groups under even stricter rules than they face on the outside. As Foucault said of the Panopticon, its "functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system." This system is part of a broader set of disciplinary institutions that, broadly speaking, attempt to control society to maintain the status quo. These institutions, as exemplified by prisons, are not at heart dedicated to protecting human rights, individual well being, or freedom, and this shows in the cruel built forms these institutions take on.

Foucault believed that disciplinary systems, and prisons in particular (with the Panopticon as the ideal type) were social failures. He considered that the way disciplinary systems crush individuality and individual freedom is antithetical to positive social goals such as rehabilitation and peaceful coexistence. He also saw the inherent cruelty of prison buildings for what they are - spaces where state agents, dedicated to maintaining state power, exact revenge and enforce discipline on those who fail to abide by the system. Given the overwhelming failure of prisons to reduce crime and the endless catalogue of abuses committed within prisons, ADPSR agrees with Foucault. It is time for architects to find new means of building a just society, and new buildings for a better set of institutions. The disciplinary model of the prison/Panopticon is a failure.