Sunday, June 14, 2009

Prison Architecture: Treating Prisoners Makes a Difference?

An article published in this week's New York Times magazine section, "Behind Bars...Sort Of" describes a prison in a small Austrian town of Leoben. There is a slideshow that accompanies the article detailing the philosophy behind punishment using something besides the physical space of a traditional prison.
A word on the architecture:
[t]he building looked both idle and inviting, like a college library during winter break — or it would have, anyway, were it not for the razor wire coiled along the concrete wall of the yard and the sentence carved below it, a line from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the United States signed and ratified) that reads: “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Inside the prison it felt like Sunday afternoon, though in fact it was a Tuesday. There was a glassy brightness over everything, and most surprising, an unbreakable silence. Prisons are usually clamorous places, filled with the sound of metal doors opening and closing, and the general racket that comes with holding large numbers of men in a confined space. Noise is part of the chaos of prison life; Leoben was serene. I mentioned as much to Hohensinn, and he smiled and pointed to the whitewashed ceilings. He had taken great care to install soundproofing.

A word on the philosophy:
It sounds odd to say, but it’s nonetheless true: we punish people with architecture. The building is the method. We put criminals in a locked room, inside a locked structure, and we leave them there for a specified period of time.....
“They are criminals,” Hohensinn said to me, “but they are also human beings. The more normal a life you give them here, the less necessary it is to resocialize them when they leave.” His principle, he said, was simple: “Maximum security outside; maximum freedom inside.”

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