Book Review: The Architecture Of Incarceration

Architecture Of Incarceration, edited by Iona Spens

I have mixed feelings about this particular book.  On the one hand, I am definitely a part of the target audience that this book is aiming at, and that is people who are interested in prisons and have a strong degree of interest in punishment and in the repercussions of social thinking about crime.  This book is written with a great deal of concern about the language of sociological thinking and the many and varied concerns that are viewed as important by those who are engaged in planning and funding and running prisons in Western Europe and North America.  That this thinking is somewhat limited and that not everyone who views are important are viewed so should be readily obvious.  That there are defective approaches to penology in our society must be candidly admitted, but what to do about it remains complex, and this book is at least worthwhile in acknowledging the complexity of concerns that lead to the design of certain kinds of prisons, with certain kinds of concerns about staffing and cost as well as the difficult problems of trying to balance the well-being of prisoners with the social need of reminding them that they are being punished for their wrongdoing (something this book shows some hostility towards).

This book is divided into two sections that total up a bit more than 100 pages.  The first section of the book begins with a foreword and introduction that talk about prisons and their grimness and the desire that they should be improved in the contemporary world.  After this there are three essays dealing with history as a guide to contemporary prison design, the idea of the prison as a landlocked fleet of ships, and a discussion of prison design in the twentieth century.  After a brief prospectus, the rest of the book consists of a discussion and gorgeous photographs and and maps drawings of various contemporary prisons in the Western world.  While I have no experience with these particular prisons, they tend to demonstrate some of the concerns of contemporary prison architecture.  Examples include federal corrections complexes in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, Marianna, Florida, Florence Colorado, and county and local jails in Contra Costa, and San Joauin, California, Tallahassee, Florida, Colombus, Indiana, Charlotte and Manteo, North Carolina, and Balitmore, Maryland.  There are also Canadian prisons in Fort Saskatchewan and Red Deer in Alberta, a couple of British prisons in Manchester and Doncaster, a German prison for teenage mothers and their children that is not very prison-like at all, a large amount of Dutch prisons (including two typology studies), and prisons in France and Spain as well.

To the authors’ credit, and these authors include former prisoners, it would appear, the book does acknowledge a great deal of the tension and complexity that makes prison design and management a difficult task.  Changes in social and elite feeling about imprisonment affects the sorts of prisons that are designed and there are a variety of different and contradictory approaches to the aims of imprisonment.  Prisons are overcrowded, funding is limited, and there is considerable (and understandable) social hostility to prisoners being treated too easily.  And then there are the conditions of prisoners, who are subject to not only the official coercion from guards and wardens and other prison staff but the presence of violence from other prisoners, violence which should be eliminated to the greatest possible extent.  What bothers me most about this book, though, is that the authors of this project seem to care nothing at all for the rights and interests of society at large or especially those who have been victims of crimes.  Criminals do not owe any debt to society at large for their crimes and a great deal of debt to those they have wronged, a debt that no one here appears to think it necessary to be paid.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: The Architecture Of Incarceration

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    You and I share the same concern. The glaring deficiency of this book is also the overriding flaw in our justice system: the rule of law provides for the rights of the accused and penalties for criminal cases are paid to society as a whole. Who is missing in this formula? The victims and their families. They do not have rights and cannot recoup damages in criminal cases. Something is dreadfully wrong when this is how the machine is oiled.

    • Right, unless victims and their families file civil suits, there is nothing that they are going to recover from the criminal, and not all are going to be willing to go through even more legal effort to receive just recompense.

  2. Catharine E. Martin says:

    Exactly. They encounter the emotional exhaustion of having to relive the trauma yet again, as well as loss of extensive percentages of the damages awarded if they win. Then there is the inevitable appeals process that may take years before the victims and their families ever see their money.

    • Justice is a difficult thing to attain when you look for it, but our justice system generally does not even attempt to provide justice for the victim or even to recognize the victim as the proper party whose interests the state is to fight.

  3. Catharine E. Martin says:

    English law took legal abuses so far the other way that our Founding Fathers sought to right the wrongs by inaugurating one that provided rights for the accused. However, they threw the baby out with the bathwater by scrubbing the victim’s rights in the process.

    • That’s right. There are negatives about being a nation with a great deal of influence from a native convict class, and certainly one of those negatives is not being quick to think about victim’s righs.

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