Disciplinary architecture

Hélio Menezes

Of the five countries with the world’s largest prison population, two are in Latin-America. In round numbers, Brazil and Mexico rank first in this wicked regional scenario. These countries have implemented a business-prison system that is both the product and the producer of a devastating reality of violence, inequality and justice mechanism selectivity prevailing especially in Latin America. In turn, Uruguay holds the shameful record of concentrating the largest proportion of prison population in the Latin-American subcontinent: 300 incarcerated individuals every 100,000 inhabitants.

But these are not isolated facts. These numbers evidence a problem at the core of each country’s political system that spreads throughout the continent: the paradox of a prison system that has failed and at the same time provokes such a high and alarming growth in incarceration rates. Although obsolete both from theoretical and practical perspectives, new prisons are being commissioned on a constant basis. This is really scary, but mass incarceration is a successful business, and it should be clearly stated: prisons exist and multiply because they are profitable. There is no "corrective measure", "social reinsertion", "educational punishment for those contravening the public order": usury, profit and gain dictate the rules and set the pace.

We all know that of all the prison’s sins, the most alarming is inefficacy, the impossibility of fulfilling the established goals. Prisons are not good at resocializing confined individuals, they do not help reducing the rates of the social violence they are supposed to fight, they do not work as counterexamples to prevent new crimes, and they offer a false illusion of security that reality refutes. On the contrary, the growth in the number of correctional facilities goes pari passu with the growth in crime rates and types of criminal contraventions. Prisons are dangerous organizations that encourage what they are meant to mitigate. In order to work, the prison system needs to trigger the whole State machinery, funded by public funds, to hire more police officers, invest in investigative technology, buy more guns, more ammunition, build more prison places, thus feeding a smiling industry that is thankful for every new prison. As Brazilian rap singer Mano Brown intelligently summarizes, quoting singer Bezerra da Silva: “prison is like a show: you need a full house to make money.[1]

In a gray and undefined area between public and private, the “modern” prison system is a fertile ground for PPP –public-private partnerships– that subordinate a social (and therefore, public, both by definition and principle) issue to market interests and to the logic of profit that governs all business enterprises. Numbers are simple: the higher the number of categorized crimes, the higher the number of potential criminals, and the higher the number of incarcerated individuals, the higher the profit for prison owners.

It does not matter whether the conditions to transform a free person into a convict are actually accomplished. We should not be appalled (although this is absolutely appalling information) by the fact that 40% of incarcerated individuals in Brazil are still waiting for sentence, i.e. are still waiting for the due process. In Uruguay, the rate of prisoners waiting for sentence is 69.7%. Most of them have been charged for crimes against property.

And you do not need to be a genius or an engineer to know what's the water that makes mills grind: black, Native Indians, poor and immigrant youths –society dropouts– that have historically filled police and prison records from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska. The punishment selectivity applied is evident. Thus, the prison system another extreme locus of exertion of power and social hierarchization and, as it extends beyond prison limits, it operates as an authorized –or at least, tolerated– tool to solve social conflicts and issues through punishment and violence. It works as pedagogy of oppression: it ratifies the legal possibility of ill-treatment and inhibits the political capability to imagine alternative models to deal with law violation. A necessary evil is established as the only option.

Philosopher Michel Foucault draws our attention to the anachronism inherent in prisons that have needed to be “reformed” since their creation. Prison is in essence an unfinished project that combines and integrates different dispositions, discourses and fields of knowledge for its permanent improvement. He says: “From the point of view of the law, detention may be a mere deprivation of liberty. But the imprisonment that performs this function has always involved a technical project. The transition from the public execution, with its spectacular rituals, its art mingled with the ceremony of pain, to the penalties of prisons buried in architectural masses and guarded by the secrecy of administrations, is not a transition to an undifferentiated, abstract, confused penality; it is the transition from one art of punishing to another, no less skillful one. It is a technical mutation.” [2]

Disciplinary architecture –as any other architecture– is not and cannot be considered just a piece of technical information, isolated from the purpose at its origin, the reason why it was designed and built: deprivation of liberty, application and development of surveillance and punishment technologies. In this case the form –as any form– means content. And vice-versa. Therefore, what's the role of architects and other construction professionals in this necropolitical monument[3] called "prison", be it modern or old, "humanized" or not? When will architecture stop pretending it has nothing to do with this debate, with the poor excuse of being a non-political activity? What's its role in devising alternatives to the prison model, in creating ruling spaces not implying confinement and torture disguised as security and modernity?

We should learn from the comparison between prison models: every prison is a setback for reason. Every prison is a tumor within the heart of the social tissue. The most deep and radical political challenge, the most utopian and nevertheless urgent and necessary challenge on this issue since the beginning, has not been its reform but its deconstruction. Or, as philosopher Angela Davis questioned, “as important as some reforms may be –the elimination of sexual abuse and medical neglect in women's prison, for example–, frameworks that rely exclusively on reforms help to produce the stultifying idea that nothing lies beyond the prison. (…) How can we take seriously strategies of restorative rather than exclusively punitive justice?”[4]

Hélio Menezes studied International Relations and Social Sciences at Sao Paulo University (USP). Master's degree and PhD, Graduate Program in Social Anthropology, USP. He is an independent curator and researcher of Núcleo de Estudos dos Marcadores Sociais da Diferença (NUMAS-USP).

[1]“Cadeia é que nem show: precisa estar lotada para dar dinheiro”. Mano Brown. “Um sobrevivente do inferno”. An interview for Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil, January 8, 2018: http://diplomatique.org.br/um-sobrevivente-do-inferno/.

[2] Michel Foucault. Vigiar e Punir. Petrópolis, Vozes, 1987.

[3] Achille Mbembe. “Necropolitics”, In: Public Culture, 15 (1), 2003: 11-40.

[4] Ângela Davis. Are prisons obsolete?.New York: Open Media, 2013.