Physical setting: prison architecture

In Social Role Valorization theory and in the PASSING manual, we talk about the power of the physical setting when it comes to communicating roles and images, setting expectations, affecting competency, and so on. This 2009 NY Times Magazine article describes a prison in Austria that is architecturally quite different from most prisons.

From the article:

Here’s a striking building, perched on a slope outside the small Austrian town of Leoben — a sleek structure made of glass, wood and concrete, stately but agile, sure in its rhythms and proportions: each part bears an obvious relationship to the whole. In the daytime, the corridors and rooms are flooded with sunshine. At night, the whole structure glows from within. A markedly well-made building, and what is it? A prison.

The place must be a country club for white-collar criminals. No, it holds everyone from prisoners awaiting trial to the standard run of felons.

The article could make for a good Social Role Valorization teaching exercise: what sort of role messages does the physical setting communicate about the prisoners, how might the architecture/layout support competency enhancement, what sort of assumptions underly the architecture, etc.

More from the article:

An assistant warden accompanied us on our tour, one of three guards on duty tasked with watching more than 200 inmates. On one side of the prison there was a block of prisoners on remand; on the other side were the convicts, living in units called pods — groups of 15 one-person cells with floor-to-ceiling windows, private lavatories and a common space that includes a small kitchen. We came upon one prisoner cooking a late lunch for a few of his podmates; we stood there for a bit, chatting. They were wearing their own clothes. The utensils on the table were metal. “They are criminals,” Hohensinn said to me, “but they are also human beings. The more normal a life you give them here, the less necessary it is to resocialize them when they leave.” His principle, he said, was simple: “Maximum security outside; maximum freedom inside.” (The bars over the balconies are there to ensure the inmates’ safety, Hohensinn said; the surrounding wall outside is more than enough to make sure no one gets free.)

We walked around some more. There was a gymnasium, a prayer room, a room for conjugal visits. I asked Hohensinn what he would do if, contrary to fact, it were conclusively proved that prisons like his encouraged crime rather than diminished it. Would he renounce the design? He shook his head. “The prisoners’ dignity is all I really care about,” he told me.

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