Evolution of Prison Design & Rise of Direct Supervision Model

In today’s prisons, direct and indirect supervision is the norm web site. Instead of isolating prisoners in a line, they are grouped into “pods”, which surround a central station for monitoring. Corrections officers constantly monitor inmates’ behavior, and interact with them. Inmates are mainly found in the common areas.

Jails designed with pods can be cost-effective, and they foster an environment that is more positive and rehabilitative for the inmates.

This design is relatively recent; the National Institute of Corrections did not recognize direct supervision until 1983. What happened to get us here?

19th Century

The first prison boom, which began in late 1700s, is the origin of modern prison design. The Catholic Church had influenced communities to use imprisonment more often as a punishment than other methods such as death, mutilation, or exile. The Revolution in England had made it impossible for authorities to simply expel offenders to America. The expansion of civilization in America and the development criminal law led to a construction boom.

Prison design reflected this concept, which was introduced by the Gaols Act of the year 1823. In 1823, prison architects started to use geometric shapes such as rectangles, circles, and squares in their prison designs.

The Panopticon was designed by the prison reformist Jeremy Bentham. Panopticon was designed as a circle with cells on either side of the building, and the gallery for the guards in the middle. The Panopticon concept was a circular building with inmate cells built on the outside wall, and the keeper’s gallery rising up at the center. This enabled the keepers not only to watch the prisoners but also to prevent them from being observed. Bentham went as far to say that prisoners would no longer need constant supervision, because they wouldn’t know they were being watched. They would therefore be forced to act appropriately at all times.

Only a handful of prisons in the United States were constructed according to the Panopticon style. Stateville, built in Illinois by inmate workers between 1916-1924, may be the best-known. Central guard towers had an underground entrance so that additional officers can reach any cells where there is a disturbance. The Panopticon, despite Bentham’s vision of a revolutionary design for prisons that would dramatically reduce costs and improve inmate reform by utilizing menial work, was unsuitable for proper prisoner housing. The Panopticon was not well ventilated and had damp cells, which led to disease, and a high death rate. The prison’s overcrowding made it impossible to confine unruly inmates to a solitary cell. Eventually, the building was destroyed.

Radial design was influenced by the Panopticon. Bentham retained his central structure housing the keepers, but this design features prison wings and hallways radiating outwards like spokes of a wheel. Raised cells were used in some cell designs to allow for improved ventilation, heating and prevent prisoners from digging into the floors. The lack of sanitation, and inability for the guards to easily inspect prisoners were two limitations which continued to be a problem.

20th Century

Around the turn of century, prison designs evolved. The lack of federal or state guidelines resulted in significant variations. However, most prisons tried to minimize prisoner-to prisoner contact. In the 1930s and 1940s, the “telephone-pole” design became the most common. The design consisted of a central passageway with wings that were built 90 degrees away from it. Prisons constructed in this way include the Maryland Reformatory in Maryland, Soledad State Prison in California, Utah State Prison in Draper, and Eastern State Penitentiary, Graterford in Pennsylvania.

Prison building in America slowed down dramatically during the Great Depression, and continued to do so through World War II. However, as soon as the war ended, it exploded. The medical model of justice was responsible for this new prison building boom. According to the medical model, offenders are not always responsible for their crimes. Instead, it is up to society diagnose and treat an offender’s disease, which can be psychological (mental illnesses), sociological, (families), economic, (unemployed), or physiological, (poor diet). The prisons were responsible for rehabilitation offenders, and for successfully reintegrating them into society.

In the middle of 1970s, societal shifts such as high crime rates, conservative attitudes in public and high rates of recidivism forced an attitude change towards “get tough”. The “Martinson Report” ended the medical approach in 1974. Martinson argued for the failure of rehabilitation programs, and detailed how ineffective treatment is. Martinson’s theories led to the development of the criminal justice justice model. The society began to think that criminals were responsible for their own actions, and not just “sick”. They believed they should be punished rather than treated because offenders choose to commit crimes. The length of punishments was no longer determined by the effectiveness of treatment. Corrections became a core correctional function: to control prisoners safely and securely, not to concentrate on rehabilitation.

The Direct Supervision Model and New Standards

We need to understand not just the transition from the medical to the justice models, but also the biggest changes in the design of prisons. Three main influences shaped corrections in the second half 20th century.

1). After WWII, corrections experienced a change in administration towards a bureaucratic approach. The corrections industry no longer tolerated patronage or personal gain, but instead placed a high value on competence and accountability. The selection and training of staff was also a top priority, as well as refining chain of command, specialization in medical, legal and accounting planning, and fiscal maintenance.

2). In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson established the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in order to tackle national crimes and provide recommendations on how the courts, police and corrections could be improved. In the report on corrections, it was stated that quality staff is the key to effectiveness. Report recommended drastic improvements to the selection, education, supervision, and accountability of personnel in corrections. The report made recommendations for offenders, including expanding community-based programming instead of incarceration. It also recommended upgrading education and vocational training. This report led to the creation of the first correctional standards, which were used as the foundation for the American Correctional Association Commission on Accreditation.

3). Prisoners began to use the Civil Rights Act and habeas Corpus to bring successful litigation against prisons to challenge violations of federal civil rights. The result was that more prisons were operating on judicial orders, and the industry as a whole faced liability for failing to protect inmates.

Direct Supervision is a result of all these factors: managerial functions, evolution of bureaucratic models and judicial interventions. Direct Supervision uses a mix of design elements, staff training and management philosophy to place officers in direct and constant contact with inmates. This allows them to become familiarized and to recognize problems before they escalate. Since they’re in the direct supervision unit themselves, officers are more accountable for organizing, supervising and controlling the day-to-day operation. The Direct Supervision program has been credited for reducing the amount of vandalism and improving inmate safety and creating an environment that is less stressful and more positive.

Direct Supervision required a completely new design of prisons. The local jails were rectangular, linear buildings, with single cells at an angle to the corridor. This resulted in intermittent (at best), surveillance of the cell. The “Podular-Remote” design of cellblocks was intended to provide officers with better control by incorporating a central area. This design, however, created a “us versus them” mentality as bars and walls separated officers from inmates. When officers entered “their” territory, inmates were tense. Direct supervision removes barriers and places the control station inside inmates’ living quarters. Inmates are kept together in the dayrooms instead of in separate cells. Officers can quickly intervene if there are any problems, and the electronic monitoring system provides officers with extra protection.

In 1981, the first prison facility to incorporate Direct Supervision opened in Contra Costa (California). The Federal Bureau of Prisons held a competition between three design firms in New York, Chicago and San Diego. The BOP required that all three companies come up with designs similar to the one they came up. This model is used widely in the United States today.

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