Carceral Environments: Introduction



Welcome to the fourth issue of The Funambulist Magazine. It is dedicated to the description of various forms of incarceration, as its title suggests, but through their common characteristics, its editorial line also intends to make a broader point about architecture’s violence on bodies. If we define a wall as a thick surface that participates in a scheme of organizing bodies in space, we can see how the wall is the most elemental component of architecture — through this definition, even floors and ceiling can be interpreted as walls. Of course, we invented physical means to cross walls: we call them doors and windows and we, as bodies, are used to exiting a room through them without thinking much about it. Yet, what separates any closed room from a prison cell is specifically the individual capacity for a body inhabiting it to exit the space. In cases of quarantine, curfew or other exceptional legal measures, bodies are given the unfortunate opportunity to see how the walls that, a moment earlier, were protecting them, turn into more or less temporary carceral limits.

We can therefore see how incarceration is essentially a legal formation but, more importantly, how it is fundamentally enforced through architecture. Richard Ross’s photographs displayed on pages 50-53 show no less than this: in them, we see five of the six walls that incarcerate bodies in the exiguous space that they form. Regardless of the politics that cause these bodies to be made prisoners — for political dissension in Fiona McCann’s article, for being part of an indigenous community in Desirée Valadares’s, for not having visa in Tings Chak’s, for finding oneself suspected of being a so-called “terrorist” in A. Naomi Paik’s, or for being condemned by a court in Sabrina Puddu’s — the principle of incarceration remains the same: keeping a body within the controllable limits of a given space, separated from the rest of society.

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Inside one of the prison buildings at Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba / Photograph by Friman (2005)

In this regard, academic and journalistic work addressing this principle tends to overstate one particular aspect of Michel Foucault’s canonical Discipline and Punish (1975) in relation to this principle: the function of surveillance — the book’s original title is Surveiller et punir — and visibility. Foucault uses indeed Jeremy Bentham’s design of a new carceral architecture paradigm called the “panopticon” (1791) to describe an entirely new societal paradigm organized through an exercise of disciplinary power. It is my conviction that we tend to consider this diagrammatic organization too much in its original carceral realm. Surveillance and visibility constitutes the modus operandi of both the police state and the capitalist optimization of production. Surveyed and continuously visible bodies are those that “already look like [their] crime before committing it” (Foucault, Abnormal, 1975), as well as the agents of capitalist productions in factories and offices. In the carceral realm itself, bodies are obviously surveilled and disciplined to prevent potential escape, yet we can also see that survival in prison is not dependent solely on one’s response to punitive legal violence, but also to the physical violence inflicted by guards or other prisoners — a dimension of carceral life which is conveniently not surveilled. In other words, surveillance appears as a secondary degree of violence when the primary one is fundamentally incarceration itself — i.e. no need to have a panopticon spatial device to know that a body is behind a thick door contained alone or with other bodies between six walls.

However, the drastic violence of keeping a body away from the rest of society is not the sole function of carceral environments. These architectures are also conceived to display the cruelty of their design in order to produce a spectacle of punishment. This is where the inherent violence of incarceration cannot hide: if carceral conditions are presented as accommodating and non-cruel — the very idea of “non-cruel” incarceration appears as an oxymoron — they do not accomplish what is thought of as their primary function of deterring crime. In other words, the logic intrinsic to carceral environments is that they are fundamentally perceived as inhospitable and cruel in order to dissuade any member of society from taking part in criminal and/or dissension-related activities. We can see how this logic conceives itself in dubious terms, since it focuses on making carceral environments deliberately cruel, rather than undertaking to make non-carceral environments hospitable and appropriable.

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Drawings from Tings Chak, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, Westmount QC, The Architecture Observer, 2014.
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Drawings from Tings Chak, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, Westmount QC, The Architecture Observer, 2014.

Another function of incarceration is the very notion of punishment itself: from the corner of the classroom to the solitary confinement cell, punishment is spatialized in such a way that not only isolates individuals, but also expects them to reflect on their actions and repent. As Foucault demonstrates in Discipline and Punish, this dimension of incarceration started to be fully integrated as a function at the end of the 18th century. Foucault speaks about judiciary incarceration itself as a “technical invention” that dates to this era. What used to be the arbitrary action of the monarch became a judiciary system that both dictates the law and defines its own legal legitimacy — and, as such, expects the bodies it condemns to incarceration to recognize and accept their punishment. This means that what the judge wants from the judged body is for him/her to say: “I understand the consequences of my actions, and absolve you, Judge, from the fact that you are stripping me of my rights” — I am paraphrasing Foucault here. This is this tacit dialogue that brings the legal legitimacy to incarceration. However, legal legitimacy does not necessarily equal ethical legitimacy, and it often masks the violence described above.

As we discuss with Nasrin Himada in the Archipelago podcast transcript on prison abolitionism (pages 46-49), the ethical question of the prison commission (whether actual or hypothetical) is recurrent in the architects’ community. This question can be simplified as the following: when/if they are offered the commission of a prison design, do the architects undertake to change carceral conditions for the better “from within,” or do they rather categorically refuse to contribute to the construction of such a violent program? Before addressing this question, we can already note that the notion of acting “from within” or “from outside” is fundamentally inadequately posed: we all live in societies relying on carceral strategies to respond to behaviors judged as illegal and/or antisocial and, as such, we can only act “from within.” It is nevertheless accurate that contributing to the design of a prison or any other carceral architecture constitutes a drastic increase in the degree of complicity with the industry of incarceration. The supposed argument for making prisons “more humane,” whether such a program can be achieved or not, in fact roots incarceration ever deeper into the structure of society by making it more legitimate.

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Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center from the Long Island Sound in East Bronx, New York. This floating prison is used as a complement to the Rikers Island facilities when the latter are overcrowded / Photograph by Reivax (2006)

This is the core argument presented by Naomi Murakawa in her book The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (Oxford University Press, 2014). She refuses the traditional narrative that opposes the systematic overemphasis on incarceration by American conservatives to the appeal to “build the bias out of the criminal justice system” by their liberal counterparts. Instead, she demonstrates how these very reforms touted by the left constructed a stronger system that increases criminalization and, subsequently, incarceration and its violence — including through measures presented as alternatives, such as parole or house arrest. What is true for policy making is also true for design. Any improvement (supposed or demonstrated) to prison design is doomed to legitimize the carceral scheme. This prompts the following questions: should architects and designers, like doctors, be legally bound to create architecture and furniture that are necessarily beneficial to the bodies that they host? The pledge organized by Raphael Sperry of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) to “end the design of execution chambers and spaces for solitary confinement” (see back cover) certainly leads us towards such a legal bind: architects should stop contributing to these cruel designs, and to carceral architecture in general.

The example of doctors and the Hippocratic Oath, which ethically binds them to always orienting their decisions towards the well-being of their patients, is helpful in demonstrating how a higher degree of social sophistication needs to be paired with these elementary, yet crucial, actions. Just like medicine organizes the conditions for the exercise of a tremendous power over bodies, sometimes to the point of their total dispossession, architecture also materializes similar conditions of power — incarceration being the violent culmination of such conditions. This is where carceral architecture has a lot to teach us: the benevolence or cruelty behind such an exercise of power — we expect physicians to be fundamentally benevolent — are irrelevant to its logic. This is not to say that a prison and a school are equally violent architecture, but simply that both of these buildings are a crystalization of and the condition for a political agenda that necessarily involves an exercise of power.

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A carceral skyscraper in the center of Chicago, the Metropolitan Correctional Center / Photograph by Léopold Lambert (2014)

Let’s not be mistaken however. This does not mean that we should necessarily go beyond the ADPSR pledge and fully abandon architecture in order to “fight the power” — which power? and exercised between which parties? — but, rather, that we should fully understand the responsibility inherent to the practice of architecture, and embrace it in the context of our own political agendas. Only through the trembling awareness of this responsibility can we challenge the violence of status quo.

In the case of carceral environments, this rebellion does not mean simply finding alternatives — “we don’t need to come up with infrastructures or buildings to replace the prison institution,” says Nasrin Himada on page 47 — but, rather, it means destroying the very logic of incarceration itself. The example of Guantánamo described by both A. Naomi Paik in her article, and Bozar Ben Zeev in the student section, is illustrative of the inability displayed by politicians — in particular by “liberals,” as Murakawa would remind us — to escape from this logic. The reason why Guantánamo is allegedly impossible to shut down is that the detention camp’s incarcerated bodies cannot be transferred to carceral facilities in other countries. Such a “solution” would only consists in the exportation of the logic of Guantánamo to a network of places around the world, can’t be decentralized. But it is only by abandoning such dubious logic that the West could lay claim to the principles it purports to be defending against those it labels “terrorist organizations,” which enables it to manufacture violent forms of rightlessness (see A. Naomi Paik’s article).

The argument presented here is a particularly broad and general one, which attempts to address carceral environments through their intrinsic characteristics. In doing so, it fails to bring a much-needed specificity to the problem, as well as to describe the necessarily political decision about which bodies should be incarcerated and which should not. The sanctioned political struggle of the Irish Republicans imprisoned in Armagh Women’s Prison or Long Kesh, described by Fiona McCann, is an easy example of such politics. Yet, so too is the racial motivation behind the United Kingdom’s migrant detention centers, as illustrated by Tings Chak and Sarah Turnbull, and in Desirée Valadares’s article about Canada’s former “Indian Residential Schools.” Murakawa notes the racist nature of criminalization terms in the United States, which result in dramatically unequal incarceration rates of American bodies — 58% of imprisoned bodies are either African American or Hispanic, while these groups only compose a quarter of the American population. A sentence from her book The First Civil Right aptly synthesizes the matter:

“Race, crime, and punishment are all politically constructed, enmeshed in institutions and ideologies that develop over time, continually remaking the common sense of who is dangerous, where the bad neighborhoods are, what constitutes excessive police force, and why some narcotics heal and others hurt.”

This powerful statement prepares us directly for the next issue of The Funambulist Magazine, which will focus entirely on design and racism. Until then, I wish you good reading with this one.