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Introduction To Prison Design - Why do we have prisons?

1.1 Introduction

The basic reason for the existence of prisons is that society, which expresses its wishes through the means of courts, finds it necessary to separate and isolate some people, who have broken the law. The concept of this segregation is as old as society itself. Conventionally, prisons have been used for punitive purposes only and it is only recently that public opinion has come round to accept the notion of using imprisonment to reform and rehabilitate the inmates.

The word "prison" immediately evokes a stream of images: stark, forbidding walls spiked with watchtowers; inmates banging on the bars of their cells; the suspicious eyes of armed, uniformed guards. It seems to be the natural end for a convicted criminal, a permanent institution stretching from the pits of the medieval dungeon to the current era of motion detectors and surveillance cameras. But centuries of development and debate lie behind the prison as we now know it - a rich history that reveals how our ideas of crime and punishment have changed over time. Penalties other than incarceration were once much more common, from such bizarre death sentences as the Roman culleus (sealing a convict in a sack with an ape, a dog, and a snake, and throwing the lot in the sea) to fines, various corporal punishments, and forms of public ridicule1. The nineteenth century saw the rise of the full-blown prison system - and along with it came the idea of prison reform.

There has always been a constant tension between the desire to punish and the hope for rehabilitation, and the prisons have evolved from the rowdy, squalid English jails of the 1700s, in which prisoners and visitors intermingled, to the sober and stark nineteenth-century penitentiaries, whose inmates were forbidden to speak or even to see one another, and finally to the "big houses" of the current American prison system, in which prisoners are as overwhelmed by intense boredom as by the threat of violence.

On looking back in history, certain evolutionary tendencies are noticed in the pattern of modifications. There has been subdivision of the institution into a series of functionally organized sub-units, each with a certain degree of autonomy. This may have been done to facilitate tighter security. But it was also to provide spaces in which to try techniques of treatment based on human interaction. The external similarity of prisons with other buildings has also been increasing. This...

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