In the last several decades, prison design has moved away from the panopticon and oppressive monoliths like Eastern, attempting through the use of smaller cellblocks to create a "sense of place" within a larger institution. Large-scale, long-range surveillance systems have proved to neither prevent prison riots or aid in rehabilitation, so the "New Generation" movement stresses the interaction of guards with prisoners in these smaller units—a "community policing" approach. Yet such heady progress runs into the confining realities of budgetary constraints and an ever-growing strain on prisons. To cut down on staffing needs and construction costs, many prisons use cheap, nondistinguishable materials, and rely on video cameras and electronic warning systems rather than wardens (these bleak "roboprisons" have been criticized by some for their detrimental effect on the rehabilitation process).

The growing prison population—currently estimated by the U.S. Department of Justice at 1.6 million men and women, and rising 7% a year—has made prison building a major thrust of new crime legislation, and officials expect that by 1998 12 federal prisons will be added to the 86 that now exist. The strain has been a boon for private prison contractors, who now operate everything from high-security prisons to temporary holding stations in twenty states. Although private prisons hold less than 3% of the incarcerated population, the doubling of the total population per capita since 1985 signals busy days ahead for companies like the Wackenhut Corp. (who together with the Corrections Corp. of America control 70% of the private prison business.)

As Marin County demonstrates in the extreme, prisons are no longer built as public monuments meant to instill fear or respect of the law, but as secluded security zones (there are exceptions, such as Columbus, Ohio's new downtown jail.) Yet as punishment becomes more hidden, more bureaucratic, we still occasionally turn to public spectacles (the return of manacled gangs of prisoners on roadsides in Alabama and elsewhere; the popularity of Cops and similar police verite) for reassurance that justice is being meted out. While in some cases recidivism rates are no better than they were in the days of Eastern ("Is not the supposed failure part of the functioning of the prison?" Foucault asks), there are at least more humane gestures at work in today's prisons. In Frankfurt, Germany, for example, the Mutter-Kind-Heim was designed to keep children with their convicted mothers. Ultimately, architecture can be used to make a prisoner's stay more or less oppressive and can keep them from getting out, but to keep them from getting in, we need to look elsewhere.   </end>



Tom Vanderbilt is an associate editor for The Baffler and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. His last article for STIM was Tastes Like Brand Equity which appeared in issue 4.4.


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