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Prison design faces judgment

Critic's Notebook: Amid the proliferation of prisons, debate over their future has exposed the facilities, and details of their architecture, to new scrutiny.

August 30, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • Coyote Ridge Detention Center, Rosser, 2008
Coyote Ridge Detention Center, Rosser, 2008 (Shawn Toner, Routledge )

It might be the most carefully hidden building boom in American architectural history.

Over the last 40 years, beginning with strict drug-sentencing laws introduced in 1973 by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and quickly copied around the country, the number of prisons in this country has more than tripled, from 600 to nearly 2,000.

In California, where the inmate population surged a staggering tenfold from 1975 to 2010, the construction of jails and prisons has accelerated even more quickly.

Yet the buildings themselves have managed to stay shrouded. New prisons are often stashed in rural areas or in the lonelier corners of American downtowns, where in some cases they fill districts vacated in the postwar decades by residents and corporations decamping for the suburbs.

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And just as prisons in the U.S. are now designed to look not just secure and largely windowless but so nondescript that they practically disappear, architecture firms often coat their prison-design work in several layers of euphemism.

Prisons and jails become "correctional facilities." On the website of the large corporate firm HOK Architects, which designed the 1997 Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown L.A., they are tucked into a broader portfolio of "justice buildings."

But thanks to a growing number of factors — some within the architecture profession, some political, others in pop culture — prison design is shedding some of that carefully managed anonymity.

An architect in San Francisco, Raphael Sperry, is calling on members of the profession to reject prison commissions on ethical grounds, especially the design of cells meant for solitary confinement or execution. "Corrections & Collections: Architectures for Art and Crime," a fascinating new book by Joe Day, an L.A. architect who teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, charts not just the history of jails but the surprisingly broad — and telling — overlap between prison and museum design.

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An exhibition organized by UC Riverside called "Geographies of Detention," running through Sept. 7, is relentless in its effort to force viewers to confront the products of what its curators, Catherine Gudis and Molly McGarry, call California's "prison-industrial complex."

Even as television series like Netflix's popular "Orange Is the New Black" bring scenes of prison life to our TVs and iPads, debates over the future of Guantanamo Bay and overcrowded California prisons have exposed the facilities — and the details of their architecture — to new scrutiny.

There is even a new video game from the British developer Introversion Software called "Prison Architect" that allows users to design and run prisons the way users of the popular game SimCity design and run cities.

As if to acknowledge that the great prison expansion no longer deserves automatic or unqualified support from the federal government, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. argued in a high-profile speech last month that the Rockefeller drug laws have essentially failed.

"Widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable," said Holder, calling the American prison population "unnecessarily large."

For all the media coverage it generated, the immediate practical effect of Holder's speech is likely to be modest. The federal policy change it trumpeted, calling on prosecutors not to invoke minimum-sentence guidelines for minor drug offenses, won't do a thing to shrink prison terms at the state or local level. Federal prisons hold just 14% of American inmates.

And yet the speech reflects a marked new interest in American society in reexamining our national experiment, now nearing four decades in length, in hyper-aggressive incarceration.

We shouldn't overlook the role of pop culture in this shift. Sympathetic characters in the theater, in movies and on television often either foreshadow or pave the way for changes at the level of policy and law.

In "Oz," which ran on HBO from 1997 to 2003, inmates were threatening and aggressive — the show made us glad they were locked up. "The Wire," from 2002 to 2008, represented a middle ground: Some of its drug dealers were violent and incorrigible, but others were entirely sympathetic, and the show offered a sharp and sustained critique of strict Rockefeller sentencing and the war on drugs.

"Orange Is the New Black" represents the far end of this spectrum, an unapologetic attempt to humanize the prison population, replacing scowls with complex and often mitigating back stories. Most of its female inmates are about as far from menacing as you can imagine in a show set in federal prison.

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