The prison of the future

Dec. 20, 2011

Three facts about the U.S. penal system:

There are 5,000 of prisons and jails in the U.S. detaining over 2 million prisoners.

America's correctional system costs taxpayers $60 billion a year, or $164 million every day.

Within three years of release, 67% of former prisoners are rearrested.

One conclusion: The correctional system doesn't really correct much of anything. Many believe it is the system itself that needs correcting. Reform ideas range from the practical to the preposterous.

In 2010, Malaysian designers won first prize in a skyscraper design competition with a vertical prison meant to address the problem of excessive post-release offenses. This is done through inmate rehabilitation, a feature largely missing in current prisons.

In the vertical prison, inmates live in a colony suspended above the city, working to sustain themselves and contribute to the community below. The sky prison has fields, factories, and recycling plants operated by offenders as a way of giving back to the community. There are no walls; the height of the facility precludes them.

On a more practical, down-to-earth level, Jane Emory Prather, a sociology professor at California State University, Northridge, and a Marymount Manhattan College adjunct professor at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York, said the issue of punishment vs. rehabilitation is no longer the relevant question.

"Instead, we need to reduce the number of inmates and to prevent their return to prison," Prather said. As of 2009, 2.2 million prisoners were serving time in American prisons, five times as many as 1980. China, with four times the U.S. population, has one-fourth fewer prisoners.

Prather believes recidivism can be reduced, maybe even eliminated, through education, that education is a key to positive prison outcomes, particularly if the classes include academic subjects, creative arts, and technical and computer skills, not merely the usual prison work distractions that serve mostly prison maintenance.

"At Bedford, there has never been a released prisoner return if she attended the college program," Prather said.

Prather would also like to see more prisons designed to include childcare units, so female inmates can care for their infants or where inmates could share recreational time with older children. About 187,000 females are currently serving time in U.S. facilities, many of them with families.

"Bedford Hills runs summer camps so youths can spend time with their imprisoned mothers," she said. Smaller living units rather than barracks-style bunk stacks would also benefit prisoners, Prather said. At Bedford, honor inmates live in a former administrator's house where they have several floors with kitchen facilities. This is not coddling, it's practicality.

"The more prisoners are treated with respect, the more this is reflected in their behavior," she said.

Jail Break

While criminologists wrestle with penal philosophy, architects are achieving their own concepts of reform through changes in building design, many that include smaller cell/living units in place of the large gothic cell blocks of the past.

So-called prisons-of-the-future are popping up all over. Oregon believes it has designed the prison of the future, one that is safer to manage and cheaper to operate than the sprawling cell blocks that surround central yards of prisons like Attica, Pelican Bay, and Alcatraz.

The main wing of Two Rivers Correctional Institution, which opened in 2007 in the small town of Umatilla on the Columbia River, holds 1,344 inmates in 14 housing pods of 96 men apiece. There is no traditional large central yard. Each unit has its own yard, not much larger than a tennis court. With the exceptions of work and worship, everything else the 96 men in each unit do, from eating, sleeping, and showering to TV, treadmill, and haircuts they do in the unit.

The Two Rivers facility is designed to separate prisoners so inmates in one pod rarely if ever see inmates from other units, even though the pods are attached to each other. At least four other new Oregon prisons have mimicked the podular design.

Veteran prison architect Lawrence Goldberg at Goldberg, Sullivan & McCrerey (St. Joseph, MO), who helped pioneer podular prison design, said the more pods you can design into the plan and the smaller you can make them, the greater the chance of properly classifying inmate populations so that bad check passers and drug addicts are not housed with violent felons. Safety is served.

"Pods give prison authorities flexibility, so violent predators, say, can be housed in Pod A, burglars with substance abuse issues that need treatment go in Pod B, and low security inmates like check passers go in Pod C," Goldberg said. "If all you have are large cell blocks with 50-80 cells opening into one day room and one yard, you may have to put your check passer in with the serial killer."

Not only does podular design increase classification flexibility, it tends to lower costs. California built 23 new prisons between 1980 and 2000 and now spends approximately $9 billion a year on its correctional system. In a podular system, guards can supervise more than one pod from a central control facility, so fewer guards are necessary. California currently employs 30,000 prison guards, the costs of which amount to 40% of its prison budget. Correctional departments are therefore always leaning on architects to find ways to reduce prison operating costs.

Goldberg says one way to lower costs is through the use of electronic technology.

"We can now harness an array of electronic technology the likes of which was neither available nor affordable 10 or 20 years ago,' he said. One example is video arraignment, where a communications link is established from jail to courthouse, so for early appearances and certain hearings the accused does not need a two sheriff escort to the courthouse for most of the day. Goldberg said this type of video link, which cost over $100,000 just a few years ago, can be installed now for $20,000-$30,000.

Another electronic advance is video visitation, where inmates uses a link from a booth in the day room to remotely communicate with visitors located in the prison lobby, or perhaps one day at home. Guard escort duties are thus reduced.

"Placing these types of affordable technologies in the cutting-edge jails not only enhances security, it lowers manpower costs," Goldberg said.

Divide and Conquer

The use of new electronic technologies, as well as the podular divide and conquer design, is popular also in Europe. One new high-tech jail in the Netherlands is build around a number of innovations. Suitable, non-violent prisoners are housed in 25 six-person cells, inmates wear electronic wristbands so guards can track their movements, and guards are equipped with handheld devices to monitor trouble. Cells have three bunk beds (each bed with its own touch-screen television), two toilets, one shower, a washer-dryer, and dining table with six chairs.

On average, 150 prisoners are housed here at Lelystad, overseen by no more than six guards. According to Dutch correctional authorities, the prison is seen as the future of correctional facilities because it is cheaper and more efficient to operate. At the same time it does not coddle criminals, nor violate fundamental human rights.

This Dutch facility takes a behavior approach to corrections. Each detainee is responsible for his own behavior and is confronted with it. Inmates earn money, are allowed more hours of television, and longer visitation periods for obeying rules. Bad behavior leads to forfeit of privileges.

One electronic innovation is aggression detectors, which are devices that register characteristic sounds of human aggression, while filtering out normal ambient conversation. Audible signs of anger, fear, and panic usually precede physical violence. When aggression is detected, the device activates an alarm in the nearest control room, permitting timely intervention. In the Dutch prison, each cell is equipped with two aggression sensors, one in the cell space and one in the shower.

In Austria, architect Josef Hohensinn considered an element of home-comfort in the design for his new Justice and Detention Centre in Leoben. The facility is now Austria's show-piece prison, hosting visiting delegations from around the European Union.

At Leoben, eligible prisoners in groups up to thirteen are housed in a wing of their own and can move freely among the cells and communal spaces. Hohensinn also provided the opportunity of stepping out for fresh air, so each communal section has a loggia, with bars, so inmates can venture outdoors whenever they wish.

Beat the Rap

If these new prison concepts sound more like men's retreats than real prisons it's because designers sense what no one likes to admit - the current prison system is flawed and maybe unreformable, at least if the point of imprisonment is rehabilitation.

"We can make prisons better but we cannot make them work," said Peter Moskos, a professor of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of "Cops in the Hood". "Prisons will always fail at their goal of reducing crime because rehabilitation, if it stands any chance of success, must be separated from incarceration."

While conceding that alternatives are needed, Moskos wishes reformers the best of luck. He said there are prison reforms that can be made and should be made, but on a more fundamental level reform is just tinkering with an institution that has failed miserably.

Moskos said house arrest is one solution. He believes the use of electronic home monitoring and surveillance technologies could dramatically reduce taxpayer burden by confining non-violent offenders in their own homes, where they would pay their own rent, buy their own food, and arrange their own health care, thereby relieving taxpayers of cost of imprisonment. California, which has more prisoners than Germany and the UK combined, spends an average of about $47,000 per inmate per year - two-thirds of which is spent on security and inmate health care.

"With house arrest, offenders can remain in the real world, instead of learning to be better criminals in prison," Moskos said.

But, if house arrest for qualifying inmates isn't considered punishment enough, Moskos favors just about anything that keeps people out of prison. Even flogging. In fact, he recently published a book on the subject, appropriately titled "In Defense of Flogging". In his view, prisons have simply become mass institutions of punishment and are doomed to continued failure.

"We need to think of better and cheaper ways to punish that does less harm," he said. Therefore, he recommends giving most felons the choice of flogging in lieu of serving time in prison.

"If flogging were so cruel, no one would choose it," he said, "but, of course, most of us would choose the lash over prison because prison is almost unimaginably cruel and barbaric, much more so than whipping."

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