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The Architecture of Incarceration

Changing paradigms in prison architecture

Niharika Sanyal
CEPT University, Ahmedabad

I a per erse e er ise of reati it , ar hite ts reate pe al stru tures desig ed to destro
the perso alit . Derek . Jeffre s,
, Ch.
Feeble light enters the cell from a grilled ventilator at a height of three metres from the
floor. The grilled entrance to the cell faces a verandah through which an outer courtyard
decked with pink flowering shrubs can be viewed. These offer perhaps some visual retreat
to the priso ers o fi ed i these solitar ha ers for re olutio ar ri es duri g British
colonisation in India. The British strategically chose the best suited location to practise such
a penal philosophy of solitary confinement atop the isolated island of Port Blair in the Bay
of Bengal.
All architectural decisions that went into the making of the Cellular Jail in the Andaman
Islands stemmed from the decision to punish by isolation. A radial plan was adopted with 7
branching wings connected by a central tower. From here, the guard had a vantage point
over all wings. As one walks along the length of the bare back facades of each wing, a sense
of desolation is pervasive. One is forced to imagine how effectively isolation was enforced
through this radial plan each cell could only view the backs of other cells, preventing
communication between the prisoners.
A yellow gateway, flanked by two towers, marks the entrance into the jail. Once inside, the
severe programme that the building houses becomes highly apparent through its strict
geometry the radial plan reates perspe ti es of a e aggerated ature, dra i g o e s
attentions across rows of grilled arches towards the high watchtower.
The triangular courtyards between each wing served as grounds for flogging, and for
implementing torture techniques like oil grinding, hanging by the leg in the sun, etc.
The Cellular Jail toda sta ds as a s
ol of I dia s freedo fro the British aj, housi g
museums that tell stories of horror and offering panoramic views of the island and sea from
the roof top terraces.

Cellular Jail, Po rt Blair, Andaman & Nicobar Islands: Radial layout, back of a wing, verandah

Prison Architecture
Largely, the purpose of prisons since the conception of the institution in the 18th century in
Europe has been to instil punishment by depriving inmates of their freedom. Prison
architecture is the epitome of hard architecture, designed to erase human dignity by
constantly enforcing on criminal minds the notion of punishment for misdeeds done. It is
de ata le hether ar hite ture re ai s ar hite ture
he it deals ith for s of
constraint, diametrically reversing the otherwise eternal aspiration of architects to elevate
the human condition.
The minimum criterion of a prison should be that an inmate emerges no worse than when
he entered. Instead, there is much data to prove that prisons serve as breeding grounds for
further criminal activity. This essay analyses the role of the architecture of prisons, as
opposed to only the penal philosophies they embody, in modelling human behaviour. It
attempts to establish whether the two have any relation at all. It also attempts to touch
upon the various ways in which a rehabilitative prison programme can manifest itself
1. Architecture of Surveillance: An analysis on the blurred boundaries between public and
private realms of individuals
The all-seeing eye of Jeremy Bentha s ir ular Pa opti o priso
odel set the stage for
an architecture of surveillance to e erge i its ost ideal for in the 18th century. The
central guard tower can see all but not be seen. Such a system is organised along visual,
aural and symbolic lines.
Symbolic surveillance: The name of Dartmoor prison evokes images of a forbidding
silhouette against the skyline. Older prison models, like Dartmoor, accorded a great deal of
emphasis on the symbolic conveyance of authority in order to deter criminal activity within
their walls. These were characterized by centralized tall observation towers, strategic
placement of observatory agents and a clear dominance in the spaces assigned to
authorities. Such surveillance is especially evident in radial organisations. Most had a
pronounced gateway that acted as a mediating zone between the public realm of the
outside society and the inner workings of the inmate world.


Be tha

s Pa opti o , Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (1821), Pentonville Prison (1842)

Visual surveillance: Watchtowers, open hallways, grills instead of doors to cells, use of
mirrors all of these strategies serve to facilitate a visual surveillance on the inmates. Most
early 19th century prisons were modelled on the disciplinary gaze of the guard over the
inmates. At the Minnesota State Prison, columns are even omitted and connecting corridors
between blocks are made of glass to establish a perpetual visual control. 1
Aural surveillance: At the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, surveillance has been
stretched to the point that forms are manipulated to direct sounds to the centrally
positioned keeper. High vaulted ceilings are designed thus, also reducing the ability of
prisoners to communicate with each other. Extended walls between cells are designed to
prevent communication between inmates and to prevent the foreknowledge of the arrival
of guards down the corridor. 1

Eastern State Penitentia ry, Philadelphia: Imposing entrance gate, ex tended walls between cells

2. Forms of Constraint: Hard architecture and materiality; prisons as a model in prescriptive

Quite ironically today, the architecture of the total institution of prison has become the
model for housing developments, commercial buildings and even airports. The scale and
impermeability of hard architecture is oppressive to the human spirit and yet has found
various manifestations today in walled campuses and housing societies around the world.2
Neo-behaviourism serves as an ideological prop behind hard architecture, claiming that
pro idi g de e t housi g for pu li harges ould a ou t to re ardi g po ert or
criminal behaviour. Neo-behaviourism expounds that the taking away of an appetitive
stimulus generates negative punishment, in order to decrease a certain behaviour thus
believing that i pro ed ph si al o ditio s ill a tuall rei for e ri i al te de ies. The
oppressive environments that such a belief propounds can instead foster even further
criminal activity amongst inmates, stemming from a sense of resentment towards society. 2
Prescriptivity in prison design is meant to order human behaviour to avoid minimum conflict
between inmates and officials. Prescriptivity is meant to deprive one of freedom of
movement and choice which, in a democratic society based on ideas of freedom, amounts

to a powerful form of punishment. Such rigid design measures can be implemented through
the organisation in plan as well as through the choice of materials.
Organisation: Prescriptive design explains the preference for radial corridor-based
organisational plans. A truly prescriptive design must lack any covert places and recesses for
e ils to a ou d a d must convey a sense of omnipresent surveillance. Freedom of
movement can be abused by prisoners who use it as an opportunity to trade drugs or
physically assault other inmates. Complex networks can develop like cliques and gangs in
more relaxed prison environments, which explains the reluctance of many prison officers to
work in new generation prisons. 6
Considering separation important in order to prevent moral contamination, prisons have
over time overcome the need to enforce physical punishment, instead making the b uilding
itself a passive instrument for maintaining good behaviour. As a result, the interior spaces in
prison accommodation evolved in the 19th century to became increasingly cellularized and
claustrophobic, while the exterior facade became more expansive and grandiose.6
Materials: The typical solution so far has been to harden prison furnishings and attach them
to the walls, in the mistrusting attitude that prisoners can use any piece of furniture as a
weapon, or vandalise it. The advocacy of fixed, indestructible furnishings creates an
oppressive environment. A possible solution to this quandary lies in opting for softer
materials, like Styrofoam for chairs, and inflatables for mattresses which are sufficiently
cheap to be replaced in the few cases of vandalism, and present no potential harm. 2
At the New Jersey State Penitentiary in Leesburg, subtlety has been tested as a measure to
generate a disciplined environment through the employment of reverse psychology in the
choice of materials. Believing breakable materials to be a necessary component of humane
e iro e ts, the ar hite ts used large a ou ts of glass i the priso s ar hite ture. This
invariably requires the prisoners and guards to arrive at a mutual agreement so as to
prevent flare-ups that would lead to shattering of the glass walls. 2 Of course, the very
employment of such an experimental strategy suggests a re-look into the way that this
institution functions, and ways in which simple architectural strategies can generate a social
shift in these disciplined landscapes.

The prescriptive measures employed in prison design have been modified variously to fit the
eeds of other i stitutio s toda like stude t hostels, old-age homes and even schools. In
India especially, models of student hostels have evolved to prevent interactions amongst
stude ts, espe iall a o gst o s a d girls, u der the pre ise of pre e ti g disorderl
eha iour . Fixed timings deprive one of a basic sense of freedom and sparse furniture is
provided under the premise of probable vandalism. Gates are located such that they can be
lo ked the authorities to pre e t stude ts fro es api g .

3. The Inmate World: The social situation of inmates a look into the causalities that link
physical environments and human behaviour
E er i stitutio aptures so ethi g of the ti e a d i terest of its e ers a d pro ides
something of a world for them... A total institution may be defined as a place of residence
and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for
an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of
life. (Erving Goffman, 1961) 3
There seems to be a wide-ranging lack of consensus as to what incarceration is supposed to
achieve. Rehabilitation is often viewed as a goal in itself, and is employed through varying
strategies in several prison models. The first American Prison in Pennsylvania was based on
the model of solitary confinement which the penal forces believed would provide the
transgressors ample time to mull over their misdeeds, and to repent.
Following this, hard work came to be viewed as a possible path towards repentance and
improvement, which resulted in the development of the Auburn Prison. Curiously, the
prison employed a silent system in which inmates could come together to work but were
not allowed to talk to each other. This was based on the idea that an ascetic life would
reform the prisoners.2
Studies have shown, however, that Prisoners are often known to succumb to effects of
isolation in these systems, resulting in de-individuation, disculturation and stimulus
deprivation.2 Isolation deprives one of o e s personal identity, rejecting his needs for
creativity and communion. By the 4 s the i reasi gl stri t poli of se lusio as oted
to have resulted in a growth in the number of insane prisoners. 6 Sadly, prisons have been
playgrounds for manifestation of negative spiritual forces like anger, fear and
dehumanization with architecture and technology being employed by penal authorities to
achieve these ends.4
Of late, several alternative strategies have been employed with effective results to produce
a transformation in criminal minds. Meditation, immersion in religious goa ls, bibliotherapy
these have served to reform criminals into good citizens because they create an inner unity
not imposed upon them by the outside world, but stemming from an inner realisation. 4 The
programme of the prison as we know it must change to accommodate such alternative
measures at rehabilitation.

4. New Prison Models: arriving at a reconciliation between the paradoxical aims of

punishment and rehabilitation
Architecture today, especially in Australia and Scandinavia, is striving to redefine the role of
incarceration in our society. An increasing awareness in the need for communion and basic
human dignity in developing mentally sound persons has evolved penal philosophies of the
new generation model.
Surveillance: A re-examination into the idea of surveillance as being a necessary requisite to
enforcing punishment has changed the entire organisational patterns, massing and notions
of place-making in prisons. Durham and Woodhill prisons have modest entrances of a
humane scale.5 There is an attempt at erasing the idea of surveillance altogether through
the employment of invisible security measures like cameras. This is undertaken under the
purview that such a predominating external influence is detrimental to the i ate s
psychological improvement. Surveillance serves to expound fear, while the role of these
reformatory prison models is to encourage positive self-development that stems from an
internal will.
Privacy: In Australia s Mo ilo g priso , a radi al de isio to eliminate bars and grills
altogether from the design is a step in the direction of restoring basic human dignity. The
priso ers roo s ha e a hat h that a e slid
the guards to o ser e at ti es, ut for
the most part the inmates are allowed to retain their privacy. 7
Soft Architecture: The architecture of the new generation prison models attempts to create
humane scales and psychological benefits through the use of colours that lend aesthetic
variations, visual connections to the external environment, landscaping elements like
courtyards, gardens and pathways (as in the West Kimberley Regional Prison) to create an
u i stitutio al feel and intentionally normalized settings. Furnishings are soft and rounded
at the ages to prevent injury, and recessed lighting is used to remove unsafe points that
might potentially be used in suicide attempts. 8
Community living: The organisation of the West Kimberley Regional Prison in Australia
adopts a cluster approach to living, with provisions for shared facilities between inmates ,
domestic duties in units and intimate spaces like courtyards and gardens. The inmates,
depending on their category, can access open spaces of their own free will. Community
programmes that look after the landscape of the place encourage environmental awareness
amongst the inmates.8

West Kimberley Regional Prison, Australia : site plan and image showing cluster living and landscaping

Movement: Currently many prison programmes spend around 80% of their resources on
prison management, with not much left to facilitate programmes to prevent re-offending.
Hilar Cotta s a ard- i i g desig for the lear i g priso maintains the highest levels
of security while freeing up staff time and prison budgets. By simply reducing the movement
of prisoners within the jails, it has enabled scarce resources to be switched from security
measures to rehabilitation. By linking individual units to enclosed outside space to which
prisoners have relatively free access, the design reduces the time and cost associated with
allowing inmates supervised time in the open air. 6
Security: While the lear i g priso appears to e li eral, the arra ge e t of spa e is
stri tl o trolli g , due to hi h a ti ities ithi learl defi ed spa es is free. The
prisoner in this system is judged not by his conformity but by his activities and work. Instead
of outrightly depriving inmates of their freedom, this prison reverses the logic of the
Pa opti o
odel. It is fou ded o a i isi le pedagog
here ea h priso er is a
member of an accountable group, living close to external space.

Conclusion: prison reform in the Indian scenario

In the light of these novel programmes, we may look closer home at the Tihar Jail in Delhi.
Kira Bedi i trodu ed priso refor s i I dia i the
s ith progra
es that advocated
hygiene, medical attention and effective rehabilitation programmes. Ms Bedi advocates the
i porta e of o
u it - ased refor s, fo usi g o
editatio and encouragement of
literacy ith the i ol e e t of NGO s a d e e stude ts ho a host street plays for
prisoners. Architecturally, however, India is yet to effectively manifest its reformatory prison
model but there is a major scope in the same.
Unlike Western prisons which face a problem owing to the solitary confinement system, the
Indian penal system is facing the reverse problem, owing to the problem of overcrowding in

prison cells. There is much left to be explored in the avenue of Indian prison architecture.
Many prisons like the Cellular Jail in Port Blair are modeled on the his toric British system of
prison design. If India is to truly implement its rehabilitative prison programmes at large in
the country to counter the increasing menace of crimes and repeat offences, it must embark
on the development of an Indian prison model. Much of our Indian philosophy is based on
the theory of self-improvement as a way of life. Yoga and work have formed a core of our
ancient traditions. Taking these learnings further in to reformatory programmes for prisons
would be very challenging, especially considering the problems posed by overcrowding,
violent behaviour and illiteracy.
The point of this essay has been to attain an overview of the possible ways in which
architecture can transform itself to accommodate changing programmes and penal
philosophies. To examine this now through the window of the Indian social scenario is a
necessity, and an extremely challenging one. It is not appropriate to transport a Western
ideal into our scenario, but by having an overview of the various strategies emplo yed
elsewhere, we may begin to arrive at a decision about how we undertake the task of
bettering society, starting from the bottom up.

1. Andrzejewski, Anna V. Building Power: Architecture and Surveillance in Victorian
America. University Tennessee Press, 2008.
2. Sommer, Robert. Tight Spaces: Hard Architecture and how to humanize it. Prentice
Hall, 1974.
3. Goffman, Erving. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and
Other Inmates. Penguin Books Ltd, 1961.
4. Jeffreys, Derek S. Spirituality in Dark Places: The Ethics of Solitary Confinement.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
5. Fairweather, Leslie, & McConville, Sean. Prison Architecture. Architectural Press,
6. Jewkes, Yvonne. Handbook on Prisons. Willan, 2010.
Research Papers & Essays
7. Grant, Elizabeth. Mobilong Independent Living Units: New Innovations in Australian
Prison Architectur. 2006.
8. Hobbs, Peter, & Grant, Elizabeth. West Kimberly Regional Prison. Architecture
Australia (July/August), 2013.
9. Henley, Simon. The 21st Century Model Prison (2003). 4th international Space Syntax
Symposium, London.
10. Ganguly, Meenakshi. A Pla e to Call Ho e: Ne Delhi s Tihar jail has go e
from being an unruly hellhole to a global model for prison reform . New Delhi: Time