Simulacra in Jail Design

shoplift writes: "As the detainee and prisoner population exploded to more than two million, the county jail started to disappear from the American landscape. Through the labors of specialized designers known as a ‘justice architects,’ today’s county jail is likely to appear to be a warehouse, tucked away in the industrial area of town. In a newer approach, designers superimpose faux-glass facades over concrete walls to make a jail look like a downtown office building. Tacoma, Milwaukee, Baltimore, and points between have cloaked their jails with detached architectural imagery to strip them of their social context.

This perversion of reality slowly grows more extreme and Disneyesque. A planned jail near Colonial Williamsburg is designed to blend in with the existing historic architecture. Soon, tourists can gag for photos in the 18th century stocks without being disturbed by the notion of a 21st century jail.Atop a hill off Old Frankfort Pike in Kentucky, the touring motorist may notice a horse barn, larger than others in the area and set back from the road. What passersby are decidedly not perceiving is the administrative building of the new County Detention Center. Tall stone walls extend from either side of the ‘barn,’ concealing a low-lying, 1,200-bed, minimum- to maximum-security facility, built into the excavated backside of the hill.

The primary architectural development permitting simulacra in jail design is the use of the building’s exterior wall as the secure perimeter. Exercise yards and observation posts have moved within these walls, now engineered with steel plates and abuse-resistant sealants. Initially a utilitarian means of shrinking the jail compound by eliminating fenced compounds, justice architects later found perimeter walls let them aestheticize jails. Although the rest of the architectural profession may distance themselves from the prison-building enterprise, jail designers now join their peers in inventing pretty façades and need not hear anyone insult their project by saying, ‘It looks like a prison.’

Vigorous intellectualization is required to live with the dirty secret that good design does not necessarily make for better living. Other architects sometimes suspect this, but justice architects deal inherently in control.

The notion of ‘safety’ is the rationale by which the prevailing model of warehousing inmates is legitimized. Lexington-Fayette’s 20 housing units function as jails within a jail, offering 360-degree views for the guard in each unit. Not one panopticon, but many under ‘direct supervision,’ the guiding principle in jail and prison design for almost 30 years. Whereas Michel Foucault wrote about a panopticon in which individual prisoners are segregated, today’s jails impart the powers of surveillance and control in the fashion of oligarchy, in monitored groups.

Direct supervision is part of the marketing package used by architectural programmers and county commissioners to sell the project to A community. When a jail is first proposed, neighborhood groups often oppose project out of fear of diminished property values or simple bourgeois sanctimony, referred to as ‘community outcry.’ However, after a few community review sessions lead by the sheriff and architects, opponents can be systematically brought into the jail planning fold.

Unwilling to be portrayed as opposing the jail project entirely, even the directors of local historical societies quickly find themselves speaking the language of overcrowding, video visitation, and ‘the safety of both officers and inmates.’ In exchange, their aesthetic concerns are integrated into the project, fetishized abstraction on the outside, an exercise in the utilitarian logic of control on the inside.

Instead of diminishing the jail’s presence in the community, the cloaked facility advertises the power of local law enforcers to make the incarcerated disappear.