The Economist recently published a short article about the privatization of the US prison system, a process being led by “America’s largest private prison operator, the Nashville-based Corrections Corps of America (CCA).” That company has a massive base of operation; indeed, we are told, with no apparent sense of irony, that its “potential market is growing all the time.”
“America now has 726 prison inmates for every 100,000 people, compared with 142 in England, 91 in France and 58 in Japan. With public prisons notoriously overstretched, private prisons have been quietly picking up the slack since the Reagan years.” No mention is made, however, of the impact that federal law enforcement practices have had on the rise of prison populations during and since that time, or of the role of race in disproportionate sentencing – the author, in fact, refers rather oddly to “a regrettable shortage of inmates at some facilities,” which even in its original context raises eyebrows.
Incredibly, the article seems to look at private prisons as a new source of housing.
Housing? For illegal immigrants. This “potential market” is referred to – almost fantastically – as “criminal aliens needing beds.” According to the article, “a surge in criminal aliens needing beds helped save CCA five years ago.” (Needing beds? Were they drunk?)
Private prisons, capacity problems, criminal aliens needing beds…
One of the ways the CCA plans to stay afloat and save itself money is through sacking people – a strategy which seems to have got them into trouble. According to a recent headline in Correctional News, yessir, “Private Prison Operators Overcharged State $13 Million.” “CCA and GEO were paid an extra $4.5 million because CPC did not require the companies to report position vacancies during most of the time the contracts were in effect. When position vacancies were reported, monthly per-diem payments were not reduced.”
So of course firing people was lucrative – those people never left the payroll. As John Ferguson, CEO of CCA, tells The Economist, “The public sector tends not to eliminate positions when they’re not needed” – which may, of course, be true, but: 1) we’ve just seen how CCA interprets that information; and 2) what actually interests me here are the architectural implications: building a prison without guards.
The “panopticon” is such an obvious reference point here that I’ll just skip it – though I do have two images:
In any case, the uneasy implication of an ascendant private prison industry, at least in the context of saving money through sacking people, is that, in several years, almost literally anything a human guard can do will simply be replaced, automated, and tax-deducted through and by the architecture itself. Or perhaps infrastructure is a more accurate word, but the point is that the building, the physical prison, will become more and more of an electronically automated total environment, overseen through tele-surveillance – in which case private prisons will effectively become like that game *Doom*, or that ridiculous movie *Cube*, or even that other ridiculous movie, *Fortress*, about “the Fortress, a maximum security prison run by a computer and a mysterious warden…” Which almost sounds like soft porn.
My point is that the economic policies behind prison privatization will, by necessity, exhibit effects in the realm of architectural design.
Where human resources, quote-unquote, could have taken care of certain administrative and organizational problems, and done so rather simply, the architecture itself will soon be required to step up to the plate and perform.
Will we see private prisons at the avant-garde of building automation? More to the point, do we already?
[Image: Piranesi’s prison fantasies – automated environments of drawbridges and wheels, arches and guardless vaults.]