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.
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.
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 Moskos—former 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.