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Prison History

To begin with, one should note that incarceration has not always been a common form of punishment. Corporal punishment, forced labor, and social ostracism were far more common forms of punishment than incarceration in the ancient world, medieval Europe, and even in England and colonial America. This changed with the 18th Century enlightenment in France and England, which gave rise to new views on liberty, human nature and time. The birth of incarceration as punishment (rather than as detention or for security) was the concept that restricting a person's liberty would itself be significant retribution for crime, and that a measured amount of time served could be assigned in proportion to the severity of the crime. In the United States this enlightenment concept was combined with the early American colonies' deeply religious worldview, which went to the extent of treating biblical crimes such as blasphemy as legal violations, to make modern prisons. American prisons are a unique institution with a roughly two hundred year history of inhumanity followed by well-meaning but short-lived attempts at reform.

im_eastern-state.jpgThe first prisons in the independent United States were established as "penitentiaries" to denote their prisoners as religious "penitents," serving time for their sins. Early penitentiaries gained national and international attention for their high goals of perfecting society through incarceration, but despite their high moral aims, they soon became as overcrowded, dirty, and dangerous earlier European dungeons. Maintaining control of their populations became their primary task.

By the late 19th Century, outrage over prison conditions led to the "reformatory" movement, which attempted to redefine prison's role as that of "reforming" inmates into model citizens, by providing education, work, and counseling. Innovative flexible-time sentences (e.g. "four to seven years") indicated that reform was a variable process, and could be completed sooner or later depending on the individual prisoner. Children were separated out from adult prisoners for the first time, although so little accountability was built into early juvenile-justice systems that conditions rapidly became far worse than those for adults. And again, despite the curricula and activities of the reformatory movement, prison conditions deteriorated to a struggle for control in inhumane and hostile conditions.

Two further waves of reform characterize the 20th Century. A 1930s building wave of rural institutions (where the setting was assumed to help rehabilitate prisoners), such as San Quentin and Sing-sing, saw a major increase in the size of individual facilities, leading to the nickname "Big House." Architecture was a major component of these "better" prisons, especially with attempts to provide more daylight and a less oppressive atmosphere, but in operation these warehouses for thousand of prisoners at a time failed to adequately meet basic needs of hygiene and safety. In the 1950s, modern social scientists took up the treatment of prisoners, bringing in sociologists, counselors, and more new buildings to make more humane environments. Switching to the word "Corrections" to describe the bureaucracies now administering prisons symbolized the advent of modernism and its faith in supposedly impartial technology. The same utopian zeal led to the publication of the 1955 United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which recognizes many basic human rights of prisoners (now frequently violated in the United States). In this spirit, architects tried to make prison buildings less intimidating by providing spaces for rehabilitation, learning, socialization, and activity. Yet despite the gentler "Corrections" approach of the '50s and '60s, prison riots became more common and the frequency of prisoner abuse led to a vocal prisoners' rights movement.

In the 1970s judges became more receptive to claims of prisoners' rights, and they began to mandate significant improvements in many conditions for prisoners. New judicial standards, however, intersected with the new crimes, sentencing laws, and prison population explosion of the "War on Drugs." Resources for rehabilitation instead went to drug law enforcement. In this way, new prison construction intended to reduce overcrowding and improve the chances of rehabilitation barely were complete before they were filled to capacity with drug offenders. From the 1980s on, prisons have been built in increasingly remote locations and loaded with draconian rules and intentionally harsh conditions. The pinnacle of "post-modern" prisons is the super-maximum security prison, typically located in an isolated and depressed rural area, intended for holding large numbers of prisoners for long terms with no optimism about their behavior in prison or afterwards. These prisons are already producing numerous claims of human rights abuses and other problems.

In short, the cycle of prison reform followed by the return of substandard, subhuman conditions is a hallmark of the history of American incarceration. In this context, ADPSR is not advocating for architects to participate in a new round of prison reform - instead, we call for an end to new designs for prisons and to new investments in prisons; we want designs and investments for a society focused on equality and justice for all.

African-Americans have historically always had a different set of institutions and punishments controlling their behavior. In the colonies and prior to the Civil War, slavery included the denial of their citizenship and basic human rights, and the public sanctioning of lynching and vigilantism against them. Today, many African-Americans feel that the disproportionate jailing of people of color shows that this history of separate and unequal treatment at the hands of the law is far from over. In this context, opposing prison construction is an important first step in moving away from a society where institutional racism leads to increased suffering and oppression for historically discriminated-against groups.