Rethinking Prison Design

Justice Center Leoben is a fantastically-designed prison in Austria that can’t be ignored. Designed by architect Joseph Hohensinn, views on the prison are varied and emphatic. The New York Times takes a tour of the prison, offering some novel thoughts on imprisonment and rehabilitation.

Before the prison opened, late in 2004, [Joseph Hohensinn] had a solid career building public housing. Now he is the Man Who Built That Prison, a distinction that dismays him slightly, if only because, as he says, “One always has mixed feelings about having one work singled out for attention.”

Leoben has received quite a lot of attention. In America, its public profile has been limited to [mockery], but in Europe, Hohensinn’s design has become more of a model [ā€¦]. It is the opening statement in a debate about what it means to construct a better prison.

I’m all in favour of prison complexes such as this, and my reasons why can easily be encapsulated in two quotes: one from Hohensinn himself, and the otherā€”carved into a concrete wall of the prisonā€”from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

“They are criminals, 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.”
“All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

As the article states, it’s still too soon to tell if such an approach is ‘correct’, but before we can answer that question we have others we need to debate. Some I found myself asking:

  • Does imprisonment work?
  • If you trust a criminal with a better environment, will he prove trustworthy?
  • Do ‘comfortable’ prisons encourage crime?
  • What do we want prisons to actually do?
  • What exactly does ‘imprisonment’ constitute?

At first glance these may seem obvious, but with further examination they’re quite complex questions.