Crime and Punishment

Designer Prisons

Posted by on November 20th, 2012 at 10:11 pm
From time to time, Audacious Ideas will invite a guest blogger to write about issues connected with the work and values of OSI Baltimore. These independent writers will express their thoughts and ideas, and not necessarily reflect the views of OSI.


I am sure that you cannot overlook how my prison design will render unnecessary the severe use of irons … Morals reformed, health preserved – and public spending lightened – all by a simple idea in Architecture!

 Jeremy Bentham on his prison design, 1791

Prison design and architecture has been closely entwined with public debates over prison policy and the meaning of justice in a democracy since the earliest days of the Republic. Far from being a mere utilitarian question of constructing buildings to incarcerate criminals, the history of prison design reveals some of our deeply held beliefs about the meaning and value of punishment in society.

The current debate in Maryland about the construction of a new facility in Baltimore to incarcerate juveniles charged with adult crimes can be helpfully examined through the lens of this history, a history separate but parallel to the oppressive racial history of the prison in America.

Designer's rendering of new youth jail

The State of Maryland and its private-sector designers and architects repeat very specific historical ideas about the form and function of prison that reveal and promote a very particular ideology about incarceration and the society that builds them. Both state policy-makers and opponents of the new prison would benefit from such a broadening of perspective in the current debate.

Here is the “Architect’s Statement” from PSA-Dewberry Inc. (Virginia) and Penza Bailey Architects Inc., (Baltimore) the designers of the proposed youth facility. The statement appears in the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Justice Facility Review (JFR), in which the design for the new youth jail was given a “Merit Award.” The images here are all from the AIA’s JFR journal.

Youth jail floor plan

The Youth Detention Facility (YDC) is the first phase of a broad master plan for the State of Maryland’s Baltimore Correctional Campus, located in a highly visible, urban context within downtown Baltimore. The YDC will be physically linked to the future Women’s Detention Facility.

The YDC is a multi-story facility, with seven housing pods operating on a direct-supervision model. The housing configuration will house all juvenile populations (pre-trial and sentenced, male and female) in units of varying classification levels. The re-configurable general population units provide necessary separation by classification, while minimizing the need for special housing. The populations are separated horizontally within the building, and only mix (to a limited degree) in the educational setting.

Decentralized Services: Many of the facility’s core services are decentralized to the housing units. Dayrooms are the hub for food service, basic medical, personal laundry, video visitation, and also have direct connection to outdoor recreation areas, and multipurpose rooms used for education, counseling and/or medical triage.

Centralized Services: The educational program is centralized in a three-story school wing, expressed on the exterior as a distinct mass to reinforce the school’s identity and the importance of the educational component of the facility. The education wing includes school administration, psychological services, testing, media center, and specialized services for unique educational needs. A large multipurpose/gymnasium space acts a central gathering/sports area. The space is made available for services of outside agencies (church groups/social service groups) that have expressed interest in engaging with the institution to promote greater rehabilitative opportunities. The clinical/infirmary is a full-service minor medical/surgical unit providing on-site dialysis, x-ray, optometry, dentistry and physical therapy. The mental health area adjoins the clinic/infirmary, and is designed for intervention. It provides dedicated male/female units, isolation, “control/observation”, and “behavior adjustment” units. Each unit is designed to operate independently, with on-unit crisis management/counseling.

A few things stand out here. First is the invocation of a “first phase” for a broad “master plan” for the State of Maryland’s Baltimore Correctional Campus.” If such a “master plan” exists it has been conspicuously absent from the public debate. I have written from a different perspective about the construction of an East Baltimore Carceral Campus.

Second, is the connection between the Youth Jail and a future Women’s Detention Facility (the idea that building one jail presupposes the potential for building another). Of course it has been precisely the conditions of confinement for youth and women at the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC) that has drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which still finds BCDC has “not yet achieved substantial compliance” with a variety of federal laws protecting the rights of prisoners.

And lastly, familiarly, what is shot through the prison designer’s manifesto for the youth detention facility is a language that would be completely familiar to Jeremy Bentham and the later Victorian and twentieth-century reformer’s hopes for the value of prisons.

Take a look below at what the designers imagine as the wholesome environment of the new jail. Beyond the racial fantasy portrayed, you get visual summation of how policy-makers genuinely think about incarceration:

However, more than a generation into the unprecedented mass incarceration of American citizens, with more than a generation of evidence-based scholarship and the lived testimony of hundreds of thousands of citizens, the fact is that our prisons do not rehabilitate. Nowhere is the evidence more clear than the unquestionably damaging effects of the incarceration of juveniles.

Peter Moskosformer Baltimore City police officer, now professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of a recent book on the failure of our rehabilitating hopes of prison—puts this failed historical and ideological connection most succinctly: “We can make prison better, but we can’t make them work. Prisons will always fail at their goal of reducing crime because rehabilitation, if it stands any chance of success, must be separated from incarceration.”

Finally, beyond the specific and common-sense alternatives to the building of a new jail outlined by the National Council on Crime and Delinqunicy (NCCD), the State and its architects—as well as the new prison’s opponents—can turn to Architects/Designers/Planners For Social Responsibility (ADPSR) to begin to imagine a new way forward. Begun in 2004, ADPSR’s Prison Alternatives Initiative attempts to redefine the largely unspoken connections between our designs for prisons and our design for a better society:

As architects, we are responsible for one of the most expensive parts of the prison system, the construction of new prison buildings. Almost all of us would rather be using our professional skills to design positive social institutions such as universities or playgrounds, but these institutions lack funding because of spending on prisons. If we would rather design schools and community centers, we must stop building prisons.

Please join members of Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) in pledging to not participate in the design, construction, or renovation of prisons. We also invite you to learn more about the prison system, to join us in envisioning more just and productive alternatives to incarceration, and to work towards a society that treats all its members with dignity, equality, and justice.


Gary Maynard, Maryland’s Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, put it this way at the recent state legislative hearings on the need for the new incarcerating facility: “We feel very strongly, based on my responsibility, that … we [should] build the facility.”

Based on his responsibility.

If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, then all your problems look like nails.



3 thoughts on “Designer Prisons

  1. I think Mr. Corbin has initiated an extremely important discussion that must continue. As long as there are dangerous narcotic mind altering substances on the streets of Baltimore, there will be young people that pose a threat to themselves and to others. These offenders are unable to make rational decisions and must be given time to detox. There are no positive role models in their lives, there are no adults around to protect them. If young people were able to play Malcolm X in detention centers, the story would be much brighter. If there were great Science, Math, and History instructors there to inspire these students, then suddenly the cost would be justified. However, if these juvenile prisoners are left to languish in such a center, they will remain a burden to society! Much of the culture they know is consumer oriented. There is no reading, studying, art and music making. Their experience is limited and desperate. If these young people don’t continue their Math and Science study during their incarceration, again they will leave prison with few resources to help themselves succeed in a pretty unmerciful and apathetic world.

  2. Fantastic, inspirational statement from the ADPSR. Thank you for this essay, and for the inclusion of this statement. May it truly inspire all of as individuals and as a community to reconsider — and abandon — our “love affair” with incarceration. Incarceration is not the solution, it is a huge part of the problem. If we invest in positive social institutions, including schools, recreation and arts, job training, health care and drug treatment, we will build a society that does not even need “rehabilitation.” We need to rehabilitate our society, to lead us away from retributive approaches to behavior and toward positive, restorative approaches.

  3. This subject opens up the underlying philosophy on the passion for a better society. Is there meaning and value in punishment? Does incarceration and punishment get to the root cause of the problem? Is state-of-the-art technology/architecture for prisons located in a highly visible urban setting the solution that has been overlooked?

    Or as the article points out – shouldn’t larger social issues such as inequality, injustice, racism, oppression, and subjugation be in the forefront of our thoughts, discussion and agenda?

    Or it can be contemplated that these social issues are too troublesome for the status quo, as such deliberations would mean an entire rethinking of the way we exist and function? And maybe prison architecture is an easier topic to sustain the present forces that drive our society and our world?

    However, as the article and graphics allude, the momentum should be more on the architecture of a great society and a world where equality is a fundamental building block, than on the architecture of great buildings.

    All the best


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