Prison, judicially speaking is a facility or institution that executes the legal penalties and orders that a person encounters upon committing a crime. Architecturally speaking, prison is an unusual building or a structure, constructed with the purpose of housing people (who happen to be judicial convicts) in unique ways that affect the psyche of those residing. 

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The conflict lies in the intent and consequences of this bizarre social housing facility. The noble intention of the judiciary for this kind of building is to transform a convict or accused positively by imposing regulations and discipline. Architecture’s job is to carve out spaces that serve this intended function. But, the results say otherwise. High recidivism rates around the world and decline of mental health of inmates is an actuality we can’t escape.

Imagine, walking into a room, 6ft X 2ft in size that has no colour on its walls, no window, fluorescent light bulb buzzing above your head, no fresh air, and consider getting locked in it for hours together. A dreadful adventure it shall be. But it is only half of a grotesque reality that a fraction of the population lives in for months, years and some for a lifetime. This reality manifests itself in the structures we call prisons.

These structures get constructed without much thought given to satisfy their design and spatial requirements. Rarely do these buildings meet the operative and functional requirements, let alone the psychological ones. Majorly because the individuals relocated to prisons are not considered part of the mainstream of society. Prisons stand at the peripheries of a city when it comes to infrastructure development. The question is – Why should prison and its design be of any more importance when it least concerns the free individuals that constitute society? Why should we architects and learners of architecture concern ourselves with prison design? And how is this issue relevant? To enquire this, we must look into whichever architectural features create a prison environment and how that affects those who live on both sides of a prison wall.

“In nonincarcerated space, walls tend to function as supports for embodied personhood: constitutive limits that carve places out of pure depth, both stabilizing and continuing the dynamics of stable embodied consciousness. Walls offer protection and privacy; they mediate between inner and outer space. But what is the experience of walls like in a supermax unit, where the walls have no windows and the door does not open from the inside — where the white or gray ganzfeld gives the eyes almost nothing to “gear” into, just a smooth homogeneous surface or, in older prisons, a pockmarked surface carved with traces of other inmates, now absent.” 

To Learn About The Effects Of Architectural Attributes

We have known since forever that architecture has psychological impacts on the human mind. The built environment we live in affects our subconscious consequentially, whether we are aware of it or not. It must be of sincere interest for architects to understand whichever attributes of architecture produce what effects on human consciousness as it might make us better designers of the built environment for everyone.

To Achieve A Lower Recidivism Rate

It might seem revelatory (but is not) that prison architecture is of significance and consequence not only for prisoners but also for those of us who walk in the free world. The architecture of a prison commands those in-housed, very subtly – suggests the movement of a specific kind, creates undesired feelings and emotions. If the architectural attributes are designed to isolate inmates, restrict social practices and prevent community living, it is unwise to expect civil conduct from the same people upon getting acquitted. A building with hostile architecture cannot act as a correctional facility. Individuals that depart from such places after completing their sentences are yet again a threat to those living outside.

To Strengthen Staff – Prisoner Relationship

Inmates and the prison staff must be able to cultivate a healthy relationship with each other. To do that, policies and design of the prison must subscribe to the idea of normalcy among the incarcerated. To see an inmate for who s/he is – a fellow human with social and psychological needs. Sociologists and activists are voicing their ideas and suggesting alternative approaches for the prisons. Architects, in case, decide to join the league and contribute design-based prepositions, then it may lead to something concrete in terms of change in the life of inmates.

To Prevent Prison Violence And Help The Staff In Management

Research has shown that isolation breeds anger and violence. Architecture and authorities separate inmates from each other and staff by using both physical and psychological barriers to prevent violence. The intent and actions are contradictory. The custom of keeping the most violent prisoners in complete isolation is debatable. It has its fair share of risks and rewards. Architecture plays the critical role of a gatekeeper if nothing more, of the brutal punishment system. Instead, if architecture allowed for cordial relationships to develop, by providing spaces, openings and ambience, then as per previous research, violence in prisons could lessen.

To Protect The Human Rights Of Those Incarcerated

Relationship between isolation and violence could be disputable, but the undisputed fact is that prisoners, whether serving a sentence or waiting for trials, are all denied fundamental human rights. Healthy living conditions – water, food, sanitation, air and light are in short supply. Architecture cannot change the judicial perspective and attitude towards the incarcerated, but its role in site selection, proper operational facilities is the most critical. The correctional facility that is a mess is merely a training centre to survive in the worst living conditions. 

To Care For The Mental Health Of Inmates

The most crucial and overlooked aspect of incarceration is the mental health of inmates. Architecture is also a partner in sinking the mental health of the prisoners, along with brutal and torturous discipline practices. “Part of the difficulty was architectural — the physical qualities of the unit produced memory loss, hallucinations, and blindness.”  If architecture can push individuals into depression and other mental disorders, it is very much capable of doing the reverse. This very potential of architecture and design must be of interest to architects if nothing more.

Architecture is not the cause of all prison-related issues, but it sure is one part of the problem and, for that alone, design in prison architecture matters and needs constant research and fresh approaches. 

Sources:

Lisa Guenther, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 182.

Stephen Dillon, “Nothing stirred in the air,” Places Journal, October 2020. <https://placesjournal.org/article/the-architecture-of-a-high-security-prison/>

Priyamvada Gaur
Author

Priyamvada is an architect, writer, and artist. She is passionate about the discourse around architecture both as a profession and as an art form. This brings her to architectural writing. She is an invested learner of film criticism, architectural theory and is attempting to practice abstraction through her paintings.

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