Bentham’s panopticon was never built, but variations on the circular plan were popular throughout the 19th century and well into the early 20th century. Today, the architecture of many prisons has to do with the theory of “direct supervision,” in which the inmate population is divided, based on behavior or needs, into smaller groups, each with its own unit, day room, and guards. As a result, prisons often take on an amorphous quality, a group of podlike buildings strung together.
The problem with today’s prisons has less to do with architecture than it does with social and political issues. We live in what former journalist and television producer David Simon—creator of HBO’s acclaimed drug-war drama, The Wire—has called “the jailing-ist country on the planet.” We have 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. A Pew Center on the States study showed that at the beginning of 2008, roughly 2.3 million Americans were doing time, up from about 600,000 in 1982.
This spike in the U.S. prison population has occurred even as crime rates have dropped by some 40 percent, but the two phenomena are not universally viewed as cause and effect. According to Pew, the increased prison population has to do with “state policy choices,” such as locking up citizens who commit nonviolent drug offenses. Statistically speaking, you’re much more likely to be incarcerated if you live in Georgia (1 in 13 adults) than if you live in New Hampshire (1 in 88). Director Eugene Jarecki, in his searing documentary on incarceration, The House I Live In, points to racially motivated drug statutes and the fact that locking people up has become a highly profitable enterprise. Whatever the reasons, the design of jails and prisons now effects the lives of an astonishing number of Americans.
Supermaxes and Solitary
Sperry sees prisons as examples of our society’s default position: Violence is a way to solve our problems. “Architects build thousands and thousands of prisons to enable mass incarceration,” he says. “And those buildings cause a lot of violence. I mean, it’s kind of built into their structure.”
The most controversial prisons in the U.S. are the supermax security facilities intended to house the most violent or highest-risk offenders, some 25,000 such inmates held around the country. The issue is that supermaxes such as ADX Florence in Colorado and Pelican Bay State Prison in California were designed specifically for long-term solitary confinement—some inmates are kept in solitary for decades. But recent studies have prompted such human rights organizations as the United Nations to declare that solitary confinement should be banned after 15 days. The destructive effect of long-term solitary confinement on the brain has been widely documented. As Atul Gawande wrote in a 2009 New Yorker article, “Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.”
Moreover, Sperry points out that supermaxes are almost anti-architecture: “It’s the only building you might ever encounter where there’s no space for group activity of any kind,” he says. “Which is actually antithetical to most of what the rest of the profession spends its time doing: trying to figure out how to do spaces that bring people together.”
Nonetheless, supermax facilities, though commissioned by state and federal correctional authorities, are designed by architects. Pelican Bay, for example, currently the target of a lawsuit for violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment,” was designed by KMD Architects, a San Francisco–based firm. The photo of Pelican Bay on the firm’s website is an aerial view that shows an alien arrangement of jagged concrete buildings.