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Evolution of Prison Design, and the rise of the Direct Supervision Model

Today's prison designs are mostly based on direct or indirect monitoring. Instead of isolating inmates and arranging them in rows, the design consists of "pods", arranged around a central monitor station. Corrections officers are always watching and talking to inmates, as they spend most of the time with them in public areas

In addition to improving inmate safety and the staff's, jails built around pods have been thought of as more cost effective and fosters a more positive environment and rehabilitation for inmates.

The design of direct supervision is a fairly new one. In fact, it was not until 1983 that the National Institute of Corrections recognized this system. How did this happen?

19th Century

The modern design of prisons has roots that date back to the early 1700s. As a result of Catholic influence, many communities began to rely more on prisons as a means of punishment instead of other tactics such as exile, death and mutilation. It was the Revolution that made the authorities in England realize that they could not simply banish criminals to America. A similar boom in prison construction was also driven by the expanding civilisation of America as well as its criminal law.

The Gaols Act of1823 introduced the classification of prisoners, and the prison architecture reflected it. As prison architecture evolved, architects used a variety of geometric shapes to create their designs. These included rectangles squares and even circles.

The Panopticon prison was the design most associated with this period. It was conceived by prison reformer Jeremy Bentham. Panopticon, a prison design concept that was developed by prison reform activist Jeremy Bentham, consisted of a circular structure with inmate cell walls built around the perimeter and keeper's galleries rising up at the center. In this way, the prisoner could not see or hear the guards. Bentham was so bold as to claim that prison inmates do not require constant surveillance because they will not be aware when they are being monitored.

There are only a small number of Panopticon-style prisons built in America. Stateville was built by Illinois inmates between 1916-1924. The central guard's tower was equipped with underground access, so more officers could reach any block of cells that had a disturbance. Bentham’s revolutionary vision was to design a prison with a menial-labor system that would significantly reduce costs. But the Panopticon did not provide optimum conditions for prisoners. It was difficult to ventilate the prison cells and they were often damp. This led to a higher mortality rate and increased disease. It was impossible for prisoners to be kept in solitary. The prison eventually closed due to overcrowding.

This design, though, influenced the next design idea: Radial design. Bentham's central structure, housing the prison keeper is still retained in this design. But it features prison wings that radiate like spokes. Some designs had raised cells, which allowed better ventilation and heat and kept prisoners from digging the ground. In addition to the poor sanitation conditions, the prison guards were unable to examine the prisoners.

20th Century

As the 20th century began, the prison designs changed. There were no state or federal guidelines, but most still tried to keep prisoner to prisoner communication to a minimum. In the 30s and 40s the design of the "telephonepole" became popular. A central corridor was surrounded by housing wings which were angled at 90° to it. Prisons designed in this fashion include Maryland Reformatory, Soledad, California State Prison Draper as well as Eastern State Penitentiary at Graterford.

In the United States, the prison-building boom began as soon after World War II ended. In part, this boom in prison construction was due to the new medical criminal justice model. Medical model stated that the offenders weren't necessarily accountable for their acts. Instead, society needed to diagnose and cure an offender’s illnesses, whether they were caused by psychological issues (mental health), sociological factors (family life), economic factors (unemployment) or physiological problems (poor nutrition). In prison, offenders were rehabilitated and returned to society.

However, by the mid-1970s social changes like rising crime rates and conservative public attitudes, as well as high recidivism rate, had forced a move to "get tougher" against criminals. In 1974, "Martinson's report" effectively put an end the medical paradigm. Martinson described the ineffectiveness and failures of many treatment programs. Martinson's thoughts led to the evolution of the "justice model" of criminal justice. As a result, the society came to see offenders as having personal responsibility, they were no longer considered "ill". Offenders who chose to commit crime, however, should not be treated, but rather punished. In the past, punishments were based on a set time frame and no longer dependent upon the outcome of treatment. It was no longer important to focus on the rehabilitation of prisoners, but rather to ensure their safety and security.

Direct Supervision Model: New Standards

For us to grasp the future of prison design in its next phase, it is not enough to have a basic understanding of the evolution from the Medical Model to the Justice Model. It is also important to understand three key influences in corrections from the second part of the twentieth century.

1). The corrections industry underwent a significant shift after WWII towards a new, more bureaucratic administration model. It was no longer acceptable to tolerate patronage and gain for personal benefit. Instead, competence, accountability and responsible leadership were stressed. Selecting and training personnel as well refining command chain and specialization in areas such as medical, financial planning, accounting and maintenance were all priorities.

2). In 1965, Lyndon Johnson formed the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, which was tasked with addressing national crime and making recommendations to improve the functions of courts, corrections, and police. Report for Corrections: The most important factor in determining effectiveness of corrections was the availability and quality of qualified personnel. Reports recommended major improvements in personnel selection, oversight, training, accountability and supervision. For offenders, recommendations included expanding programs in the community instead of prison, using resources from communities for reintegration and upgrading training and education, improving prison industry, expanding furlough and graduated release programs, as well as providing special treatment to certain groups of offenders. As a part of its creation, the report influenced the American Correctional Association Commission on Accreditation to create the first set of correctional standards.

3). This was also the time when prisoners started using habeas corpsus, the Civil Rights Act as well to sue correctional facilities for violating their federal civil right. In the end, this led to more correctional institutions operating under court-ordered conditions and the whole industry being held liable for a "failure of protection" against inmates.

Direct Supervision, a model that combines management functions with the evolution of bureaucracy and judicial involvement was created as a result. Direct Supervision is a model that combines a management philosophy and an operational approach with features of the design and the training provided to the staff. It allows officers to be in constant, direct contact, get to understand the inmates better, and spot problems and issues before they worsen. Direct supervision officers become responsible for daily housing operations, including organization and supervision. It has been reported that Direct Supervision reduces vandalism.

Direct Supervision wasn't just a novel way to manage jails; it required a whole new type of prison. Local jails, which were traditionally rectangular and linear, had corridors that led to cells, which were arranged in a right angle with the corridor. This allowed for intermittent monitoring of each cell. The "Podular Remote Cellblock" was created to improve officers' surveillance through the incorporation of a central control room. It was a design that created an “us against them” mentality, because the glass and bars separated the officers from their inmates. As officers entered into the "their territory", inmates began to become tense. Direct Supervision breaks down barriers by placing control stations within the living area of the inmates and keeping them together instead of separated in cells. Direct supervision allows officers to intervene quickly in case of an emergency, while also letting the prisoners know that they are constantly being watched.

Contra Costa, Calif. opened the first facility with Direct Supervision in 1981. A design competition was held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, between three New York-based firms and two Chicago-based companies. Three firms from New York, Chicago and San Diego came up with the same design to satisfy BOP's criteria for continuous active inmate monitoring. This model is now widely used in all of the United States.

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