Page C3.2 . 15 September 2004                     
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    Prison Imperfection


    Many Iraqis, including the head of Iraq's governing council, argued that the three-decade-old Abu Ghraib is a perfectly functional facility. Pointing out Iraq's failing infrastructure, they claim that the $300 million allocated to replace it with two 4000-bed prisons could be better spent elsewhere.

    Other Iraqis, meanwhile, want to see Abu Ghraib preserved as a memorial to the Saddam Hussein-era human rights abuses committed there.

    Historic Attitudes toward Prisons

    Debate over what makes an ideal prison design, and what makes a practical one, is hardly new. In an effort to create "the sentiment of an invisible omniscience," 18th-century criminal law reformer Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon, a plan consisting of concentric circles: an outer ring of cells for prisoners, an interior gallery where guards could monitor their wards without being seen, and a central core, where a head keeper could monitor the guards.

    Though criticized as a worst-case scenario of social control, the Panopticon was partly an attempt to prevent the abuse of prisoners by guards. Unfortunately, says prison architectural historian Norman Johnston, "You can look from a central vantage point into each cell, but the inmates can also tell if the guard is coming."

    While promoting accountability among guards, such a facility would be of little use for interrogation, says Johnston, who is equally skeptical that it could prevent prisoner abuse. "The kind of things that went on in Abu Ghraib can take place any place," he says.

    The ideal facility for interrogating prisoners isolates them from one another, to prevent the flow of information about interrogation techniques, especially when those techniques are primarily psychological. Ordinary contiguous blocks of cells are ill-suited for this purpose.

    However, isolation is impractical on a large scale no prison can manage hundreds of solitary confinement cells. Isolation also interferes with the daily operations of a custodial facility, such as transporting prisoners to an exercise yard, and creates blind corners where prisoner abuse can occur undetected.

    The Panopticon was never built as Bentham originally conceived it. Instead, prison design passed through a series of stages, first of which was the linear model of Auburn and Sing Sing, consisting of long corridors of cells that housed high numbers of prisoners but could provide only limited supervision.

    Equally popular were the radial "Pennsylvania System" and "telephone pole" designs, both attempts to shorten corridor length and improve supervision by extending corridors from a central axis.

    Prison "Reform"

    By the time the Auburn-style Abu Ghraib was finished in the early 1970s, however, a new model was coming into vogue in the United States: the "podular" design.

    Aided by technological innovation, podular prison design developed as a response to renewed pressure to reform prisoners while cutting prison operation costs. In the "podular-indirect" design, cell blocks were arranged around dayrooms that allowed socialization between prisoners and reduced idleness, while isolating guards in control rooms.

    This isolation ultimately drew criticism, however. By the 1980s, the question was no longer how to design a building that would allow guards to observe prisoners unseen, but rather to make each group safe from and yet accessible to each other. The response was "podular-direct" design, an approach that allowed a more proactive and face-to-face relationship between guards and prisoners by placing guards at desks within the pods.

    This last design is expected to be used in Iraq. By permitting large numbers of isolated control groups, it is ideal for managing the complicated mix of religious sects, ethnicities, and risk levels that will populate Iraq's prisons. It also permits a low ratio of guards to prisoners (1 to 48, in some American podular prisons) that will help cash-strapped Iraq minimize operating costs.

    The wide discrepancy between the proposed facility in Iraq and the realized one in Camp Delta is not merely one of design, but function. The new facility in Iraq is not expected to house the 3,000 security detainees destined for release or for transfer to Camp Bucca in the port town of Umm Qasr.

    Corrections experts say it may be difficult, even impossible, to design a prison that can function both as a POW camp and a conventional detention facility. The former is inherently temporary, constructed on the cheap, and operated by a military force trained to interrogate and maintain control of prisoners, not to rehabilitate them.

    "How you would perform the custodial and interrogation functions would clash," said Lonn Lanza-Kaduce, professor of criminology at the University of Florida. "The problem is that if we were too much concerned with custodial atmosphere, we might compromise our ability to get information, but if we do it the other way, we compromise the humanitarian purpose."

    Nevertheless, some critics in the correction field feel that the time for designing new, permanent prisons in Iraq will not come until the country has a functioning judiciary and a better understanding of its security needs. At the moment, Abu Ghraib is fairly vacant: only 1,500 "common criminals" remain at a facility initially designed for 4,200 prisoners.

    "Any kind of detention or correction environment has to understand who is holding and why they're holding them, the need-assessment phase of architecture," says Randall Atlas, an architect and criminology professor at Florida International University. Until then, he says, "any prison can only work on a short term basis."

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    J.T. Clark is a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.



    ArchWeek Image

    Satellite image of the notorious Abu-Ghraib Prison, Iraq.
    Photo: Public Eye/ Global

    ArchWeek Image

    The 19th-century Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, with a radial layout.
    Image: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

    ArchWeek Image

    Plan, Eastern State Penitentiary.
    Image: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

    ArchWeek Image

    Camp Delta, the newer, more permanent facility at Guantanamo Bay.

    ArchWeek Image

    Inside the prison at Camp Delta.


    Click on thumbnail images
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