Space and Violence in the American Jail

By Karen M. Morin, Bucknell University, USA

One of the greatest misconceptions about prisons and jails today is that the violence that occurs within their walls originates solely in the individual; that criminals are locked up because they are bad or unfortunate people, driven to crime and trouble from some indelible social or psychological cause, and that their criminal nature will follow them wherever they go, including inside the prison.

Photo credit: JoshuaDavisPhotograpy CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo credit: JoshuaDavisPhotograpy CC BY-SA 2.0

Actually though, prison violence is most often a product of the carceral system, not an explanation for its need. Many methods of prison control – both physical structures and their related penal philosophies – have the perverse effect of increasing levels of fear, terror, and ultimately violence in prisons. The increasingly typical institutional response over the past several decades in the U.S. is to isolate, lock down, or crowd prisoners, which simply creates further stress, frustration, and fear. Many politicians and court officials, particularly those who advocate a “tough on crime” stance, often camouflage these kinds of institutional factors and seek instead to simply extend the prison sentences of offenders who commit crimes while incarcerated – and this in the name of keeping our streets and communities safer.

I work with a local nonprofit prisoner rights group that receives hundreds of letters each month from inmates experiencing intensive “crackdowns,” which led me to understand how ineffective they are at stemming prison violence and how urgent the need is to consider alternatives. Ultimately my curiosity took me inside one large U.S. county jail in Omaha, Nebraska, to study violence and safety within an alternative, ‘progressive’ jail design called direct supervision. This design features, among other things, open architecture and a philosophy of free movement of inmates and staff that proponents argue creates safe, stress-free environments for both inmates and staff. Approximately 350 of the 3,300 local jails in the U.S. incorporate design features and principles of direct supervision today.

As geographers we know that space and spatial design can impact social relations and practices in myriad ways, for better and for worse. Different kinds of spaces can enable and/or inhibit different kinds of experiences and interactions. Prisons in particular are fundamentally reliant on spatial tactics to confine and control people and their movements. My study of direct supervision (see my article in The Geographical Journal) showed just how complex and multi-layered the space and design question can be. Among other findings, most of the men in the study reported never feeling in danger at the facility, and approximately one-third related unit design and layout to these feelings. Yet of those, 17% felt this as a positive impact (feeling protected and safe) but 13% as a negative – that the open architecture actually increased their sense of vulnerability. Most significantly, 70% reported that the availability of open, interactive spaces allowed ample opportunities for them to share information and life experiences, and talk of their basic rights with one another.

Ultimately this design turn towards construction of direct supervision jails is a more civil, humane direction in corrections. But this should not seduce us into believing, as Swan argued, that we can ‘build our way out of the prison problem’.

About the author: Karen M. Morin is Professor of Geography and Associate Dean of Faculty at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania, USA. She is co-editor of Historical Geographies of Prisons: Unlocking the Usable Carceral Past (with Dominique Moran), due out in June 2015 (Routledge).

books_icon Morin, K.M. (2015) The Late-Modern American Jail: Epistemologies of Space and Violence. The Geographical Journal.

60-world2 Swan, R. (2013) Punishment by Design: The Power of Architecture Over the Human Mind. San Francisco Weekly, 21 August.

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