Prisons are Not Progressive

Image by Emiliano Bar.

Mass incarceration is a tragic fact in the United States. Each of the millions of lives caught up in the desire to imprison affects an individual, their family and their community. The statistics bear out the racist nature of this practice, while the levels of recidivism point out the shortsightedness of those who believe incarceration should not only punish, but can also rehabilitate. The billions of dollars channeled to incarceration in the United States suggest a motive that, like the monies going to war and the preparation for war, puts profits and dominance before any more humane approaches to the problems we are told wars and prisons are supposed to resolve. Indeed, just like the war economy is the backbone of many municipalities in the United States, there are towns and counties across the United States where prisons are the economic entity which shape the economy of the region.

The placement of these prisons in rural areas usually takes place without incident. From upstate New York to the vast spaces of California where work is often seasonal and low-paying, the promise of a decent, usually unionized job one can get as a corrections officer often overrides any concerns about the potential risks of having multiple prison facilities nearby. As for the negative economic effects of an economy dependent on one primary source of employment and tax income, the seemingly permanent nature of the prison system in the US tends to minimize any such concerns. Recent history tells us that the prison business is a booming business, thanks in large part to politicians and the media, both of whom make money and careers from whipping up a fear of crime.

But what about when new prisons and jails are suggested for already densely populated urban areas? As Eva Fedderly describes in her new book These Walls: The Battle for Rikers Island and the Future of America’s Jails, the reception is often negative. Like the prisons built in poorer rural regions, the residents near projected jail sites in the city are also usually poor. However, they are usually not white-skinned like their rural compatriots. In fact, as Fedderly explains in the case of New York City, they also live in neighborhoods traditionally ignored when it comes to services like schools and hospitals. Like most every aspect of the social infrastructure besides police and jails, those schools, hospitals and community programs once funded by tax dollars in these areas began disappearing during the mid to late 1970s. They have never recovered. This was not an accident. Nor is it one now.

Quoting community activists and analyzing existing data, media coverage and legislative actions, These Walls makes it quite clear that the political system and the economic interests it serves have decided that incarceration trumps prevention. An ideal example of this appears in the form of a youth boxing program with whom the author has a friendly relationship. Founded and run by a New York corrections officer, the program known as Cops & Kids is always full and privately funded. The officer who runs the club, known as Coach Stark, worked at the infamous Rikers prison. He is quite clear in his statements that locking young people up is not an answer. Instead, “there should be programs for everyone who needs these programs.” (95) Yet, there aren’t.

Eva Fedderly is an investigative reporter who covers the intersection of architecture and justice reform. Her field of focus provides a major prism for this text. After it was decided in 2019 to phase out Rikers, bureaucrats, politicians and other officials began looking for alternatives. Despite some recommendations to focus on something besides the construction of new jails, the final decision of the task force assigned to address the issue was to build a new jail in each of New York’s boroughs. This project is called the Borough-Based Jails project. Although these structures were to be clean, modern and utilizing new approaches to imprisonment, the bottom line is that they are still jails. Essentially, the response to disenfranchised youths, drug addiction and the criminal activity that often accompanies it, and the growing economic inequality across the world would continue to be locking up the poor. In the United States, this means disproportionately locking up Blacks and Latinos. In major urban centers, this latter statement is even more true. As the text points out early on, the first person to be locked up in Rikers Island was a Black man. If that jail compound is ever closed, the ongoing trend suggests that the last prisoner to leave Rikers Island will also be a Black man. In addition, he will probably be awaiting trial, like most jail detainees often are.

The author continues her narrative, telling the reader that many US architects have removed themselves from designing prisons, jails and other structures of oppression. However, many others haven’t. In a chapter titled “The Justice Architects”, Fedderly profiles an architect named Greg Cook, who believes that prisons and jails can be constructed and run in a humane manner. Much like the Quakers—who came up with the concept of solitary confinement as a progressive form of penance for those convicted of a crime, Cook and the architects that share his opinion believe modern prisons can perform a rehabilitative and socially progressive role today. Later in the book, in a chapter discussing the reaction of residents of New York’s Chinatown (where one of the Borough Based jails is supposed to be built), the reader is introduced to Raphael Sperry, an architect and prison abolitionist. As Sperry’s late colleague Michael Sorkin said in an interview in the journal Croatian Architects journal Covjek I Prostor (Man and Space): “Architecture is never non-political: It always reinforces a set of societal rules whether within the family or between the ruler and the ruled.” It is this understanding that led Sperry to join the opposition to the Borough-Based Jails concept, demanding instead that the money that would be used to build those jails and continue the failed program of mass incarceration be used to rebuild schools, health clinics and community centers, educate teachers, and institute community programs in the city while simultaneously reducing the number of humans held in New York City’s jails.

If it isn’t already clear to most US residents that mass incarceration does not stop crime or stop the incarcerated from going back into the system, Eva Fedderly’s book These Walls adds one more voice to the growing understanding that it is a failure. The straightforward prose and personal stories here make the argument for reconsidering and ultimately replacing this approach to societal problems that result in crime one that is accessible to anyone with interest in the matter.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com