Prison Talk: A New Lexicon



Volume 3, Issue 12
January 31, 2018


In response to the New Yorker article by Bill Keller, “Reimagining Prisons with Frank Gehry” published on December 21, 2017.

“As students laid out their cardboard models for inspection and pinned up their master plans, it was clear that most had ignored the part about “men convicted of serious, primarily violent offenses.” They presented prison as a university campus, prison as a health and wellness facility, prison as a monastery, prison as a communal apartment complex, prison as a summer camp, prison as a textile workshop (complete with a mulberry orchard to feed the silkworms). Virtually every student incorporated classrooms, open space and fresh air, and spaces for family visits and therapy.”

Last semester, as part of the travel and research for the Gehry studio, we learnt many things about the reality of prisons in America.

We learnt that nowadays a person can be legally shut away in a segregated unit, with no human contact, for decades. A standard “cell” is a cupboard with an open-air toilet at the foot of the bed. Abuse from officers is not unusual, overcrowding is typical, it is normal to have to sleep at night with a bright neon light merely a few inches from one’s face. We looked into the eyes of women who had just stepped out into the free world after thirty-five years, and we met twenty-year-olds sentenced for life. We paced down corridors with no daylight, no ventilation, just a turquoise linoleum floor with a yellow line in the middle separating the flow of those that are incarcerated from those that are free.

When we came back to the studio, we knew that we could not design a “prison”; at least not in the traditional sense. Prison architecture in America is essentially mean—these lifeless buildings of concrete and metal are built to separate, control, and punish. Therefore, in order to present a thorough critique of the architecture of American prisons today, it became imperative to completely reassess the typology. For most of us, this meant fundamentally rewriting the idea of incarceration. What did a restorative facility look like? What new way of framing the issue could lead to a more positive and more productive time in prison? What was possible? These were a few of the questions we asked ourselves, especially after visiting alternative prison systems in Finland and Norway. These systems had offered us tangible proof that it was possible to dream of “another way,” with more rewarding results from pragmatic, financial, and humanistic perspectives.

Each of us chose to focus on a particular issue in incarceration. One student, for example, tackled the issue of illiteracy among the prison population; another, the problem of mental health. As a result, many projects appropriated themes and ideas pertaining to other typologies—schools, for example, or clinics—in an attempt to rethink the prison as a more restorative and productive institution, aimed towards betterment rather than punishment. We chose specific words like “park,” “path,” “college,” “house,” “dorm,” and “commune” to frame our projects in a way that broadened the idea of what a prison building could be, allowing us to reimagine this institution in a more progressive way.

This semantic reconceptualization was not limited to our individual projects, but extended to all our discussions regarding the topic of incarceration: we called inmates “residents”, guards were “correctional officers”, cells were “rooms,” etc. It was a collective exercise in reformulating the lexicon of prison architecture in an attempt to assert a sense of humanity and of compassion—an enterprise strongly supported by Frank, who exhorted us throughout the whole semester to be empathetic, and to use emotion as the guiding light of our designs.

In this sense, Bill Keller’s account of our end-of-semester presentation seems to have misunderstood the fundamental idea behind our intentional—albeit idealistic—projection of prisons into other dimensions of existence, be these of educational establishments, health facilities, communal apartments, or workshops. Sticking to the notion of ‘prison as prison’ would have constituted failure on our part to properly re-evaluate the issue at hand. In addition, doing so would have meant accepting a two-century-long roster of crippling projects, stretching from the terrifying notions of isolation and repentance found in the Quaker prototypes—the Eastern State and Auburn Penitentiaries—to the obsession over control in Bentham’s Panopticon. The history of prison architecture is rife with alarming connotations. In order to move the discussion on incarceration forward, it was necessary for us break from old habits. A _“_prison as prison” simply could not, and would not, do.

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Volume 3, Issue 12
January 31, 2018

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