The common uniformity of prison and suburban design

In A Burglar’s Guide to the City, a reformed bank robber describes a realization he had while walking through the suburbs of southern California:

For Loya, linguist George Lakoff’s book Metaphors We Live By took an unexpected spatial resonance, revealing ways in which the built environment could be read or understood as a series of metaphors or signs. He said that after being released from prison, he spent a lot of time taking long walks around the suburban landscape of Southern California. He began noticing that every twenty-five feet, he would hit a driveway; he’d then walk eight feet across the driveway before hitting another stretch of grass; then another twenty-five feet to the next driveway, and so on, seemingly forever, “and the uniformity of that totally echoed the uniformity of the prison environment,” he said to me, “where I had my cell and my seven feet of wall and then a door. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, man.'” He laughed at the utter despair of it all, having gone from one system of containment to another. How would you get away or escape from this?

This is a common image of suburbs: prisons of conformity and tedium, laid out every twenty-five feet by developers to maximize profits while misguided Americans snap up the properties thinking they have found the American Dream. Yet, sameness in lot size doesn’t necessarily mean sameness in lives. These regular spacing could be a very good sign of a tract neighborhood but even then, the homes – like those in Levittown over the decades – could be altered as various owners put their own mark on the dwellings. Or, the neighborhood could be quite diverse, particularly in older suburbs.

Additionally, prisons are built with very different purposes in mind compared to suburbs. Developers and local officials are not scheming to control people in these homes (except maybe through a capitalistic system that keeps them focused on their own properties and blinded from larger issues). In contrast, prisons are all about surveillance – just think of Bentham’s Panopticon.

Don’t let your McMansion turn into a financial McPrison

A real estate firm argues buyers shouldn’t buy a home that could turn into a McPrison:


The sprawling McMansion that someone said you can afford may quickly turn into a McPrison when all of your money is locked up in it. There are lots of home affordability guidelines out there. Start with this one:

  • Don’t spend more than 300% of your gross household income.
  • Another is to pay no more than 150 to 200 times the monthly rent of a comparable property.
  • All of that said, don’t buy a home unless you plan to spend at least seven years in that area.

Some conservative guidelines for buying a home, particularly from those whose livelihoods depend on moving houses. Yet, the contrast between a McMansion and a McPrison is interesting. According to this advice, the main negative of a McMansion is that it can cost too much. The McMansion can appear to be a good thing that ends up trapping the homeowner. This has been a common argument after the economic crisis: too many people and lenders overextended themselves in purchasing and enabling McMansions. Part of the definition of McMansion from Investopedia reinforces this idea:

Many McMansion homeowners live beyond their means as mortgages on these monstrous properties may be 100% mortgages, interest-only mortgages and/or amortized over 40 or more years. The cost of utilities and maintenance in a larger home are also more significant, as is the cost of commuting from the distant suburban settings in which these homes are often located.

Two quick responses:

1. Of course, non-McMansions can be pricey as well depending on their size, location, and design.

2. Ultimately, this ignores the numerous other critiques leveled against McMansions (i.e., you could be trapped by a lack of community in McMansion neighborhoods) and focuses on the financial implications. If the homebuyer wanted a McMansion and could financially make it happen, there is nothing on this page to suggest the realtors would disapprove.

Colbert shines light on U.S. prison labor

A recent segment on the Colbert Report has brought attention to Unicor, a U.S. government entity designed “to employ and provide job skills training to the greatest practicable number of inmates confined within the Federal Bureau of Prisons”:

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Forcing people to work jobs that pay as little as $0.23/hour seems disconcertingly tantamount to slavery.  And it’s probably important to note at this juncture that the 13th Amendment simply does not apply to prisoners:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction [emphasis added].

The U.S. also imprisons more people than any other country on earth, and minorities are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated (see, e.g., this December 2011 DOJ report, see especially Table 3 in the appendix).  Taken together, this state of affairs is alarming.  To put it mildly.


Funny sociology typo of the day: incarnation versus incarceration

It appears there are at least two funny mistakes in this article about the increase in incarceration in the United States. Here is the first:

“Incarnation has not only grown dramatically, but it’s disproportionally concentrated among certain subgroups of the population,” said sociologist Becky Pettitof the University of Washington in Seattle. “Criminal justice contact has become normative among some sociodemographic groups, particularly among low-educated African-American men. Incarnation has become a repository for the most disadvantaged segments of the population.”

And here is a second instance:

“Incarceration is a very inefficient and blunt tool to restrict crime,” Uggen said. “We’re incarnating many people who are no longer dangerous. It’s much more about retribution and punishment than rational policy.”

There is a big difference here between a theological term and discussing the growing prison population in the United States.

Joliet Correctional Prison may become a tourist site?

One journalist suggests the Joliet Correctional Prison, closed since 2002, may have a future as a tourist destination after a prison in Philadelphia has become a hotspot:

Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 on a former cherry orchard and housed prison escape artist “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone. The pen closed in 1971 and has been recast into one of the most popular tourist attractions in Philadelphia. Visitors wander through a frozen ruin of crumbling cell blocks, vacant exercise yards, a lonley Death Row and the prison surveillance hub. The joint reopened for public tours in 1994 and is now billed as “America’s Most Historic Prison.”…

“But Alcatraz led the way. The federal government didn’t want to open it up but they did and people kept coming. The same thing is true here, where people keep coming and we really haven’t reached our peak.” In 1994’s first year, 10,450 people toured Eastern State. There were 249,289 visitors in 2010…

Representatives from the City of Joliet have visited Eastern State to research the possibility of making the Joliet prison a similar tourist attraction. After all, the 1-year-old Independent League baseball team in Joliet is called the Slammers. “The prison has become quite a tourist attraction for us on Route 66,” said Ben Benson, director of marketing and communications for the City of Joliet…

“The City of Joliet is interested in acquiring the property but financial resources are not what they used to be,” Benson said.”We’re doing a full study on potential uses of the site. With a grant from a different division of the state, we have added about a dozen tourist kiosks because so many people come by because of the Blues Brothers lore. We had a Blues Brothers band come out and cover their songs on a stage set up in front of the prison. We look at it as our Alcatraz.

I wonder what sociologists might say explains why Americans like visiting prisons: they like violence? They are interested in criminals? They think prison culture is intriguing? Something that Alcatraz and this Philadelphia prison seem to share in common is having some celebrity prisoners that people know about. Prison escape stories seem pretty popular, particularly if the escapees have to try to escape through shark-infested waters.

From a local perspective, I suppose you have to promote whatever possible tourist attractions you might have. It would be interesting to see if people from the Chicago region would be willing to go to Joliet just for a prison. (And perhaps a trip to the casino afterward?) Note: the Joliet Correctional Prison is not the same as Stateville Prison which has been featured in movies like The Blues Brothers  and Natural Born Killers.

I haven’t visited this Philadelphia prison but I have been to Alcatraz. I can see why this place is appealing: it sits in the middle of the bay (hence its nickname “The Rock”), numerous Hollywood movies have been made about it, and it has an intriguing history including a number of famous prisoners and a AIM takeover in the early 1970s. The audio tour they have is also quite good. Here are a few shots:

It also doesn’t hurt to have the ability to sell movie posters with famous movie stars on them in your prison gift shop:

Perhaps prison tourism is the wave of the future in Joliet.

Comparing the treatment of prisoners in Norway and the US

If I was teaching Intro to Sociology right now, the stories about Norway’s treatment of prisoners presents a fascinating contrast with the United States:

Norway “takes the mantra of rehabilitation to an extreme,” Foreign Policy’s Robert Zeliger explains. “The Norwegian prison system takes seriously the philosophy that inmates should be treated as humanely as possible and that jail sentences should be seen less as punishment than as an opportunity to reintegrate troubled people back into society.”

Norwegians tend to see “acts of extreme violence … as aberrant events, not symptoms of national decay,” Time Magazine’s William Lee Adams reported last year. Norwegian prison guards undergo two years of training, “don’t carry guns … and call prisoners by their first names and play sports and eat meals with them,” Adams reported.

That approach — and its underlying premise that people who commit crimes are troubled who should be given a second chance and prepared to live again amongst society — can perhaps be credited with Norway’s extremely low prison-recidivism rate—only about 20 percent of those imprisoned in Norway commit a repeat crime that sends them back to prison. Recidivism figures in the United States and the United Kingdom, by contrast, are much higher– 50 to 60 percent, Time reported.

Indeed, Norway, a country of 5 million people, only has about 3,300 prison inmates, according to Time. That gives Norway a ratio of prison inmates to the country’s overall population roughly ten times lower than that of the United States.

Since the figures in this story suggest Norway’s system works (fewer prisoners return to prison, saving money down the road and improving society), why doesn’t the United States pursue similar policies? Here are a few possible reasons:

1. The United States is not as innocent. Perhaps this could be tied to the violent American culture and history.

2. The United States has a lot more people than Norway. It could be more difficult to maintain order with more than 300 million people than just under 5 million people.

3. The United States has a wider gap, wealth and status, between different groups, leading to more violence and more repression.

4. The United States is more individualistic and therefore puts more emphasis on punishment rather than restoring someone back to society.

Put together, these reasons suggest a significantly different cultural outlook between these two nations: one wants to lock up prisoners and throw away the key while the other has only a 21-year maximum sentence and wants to restore prisoners to society. Such cultural perspectives are not easy to change. Think of how US politicians are punished by pundits and voters if they happen to release a prisoner who then goes on commit futher crimes. But perhaps the pragmatic nature of budget deficits might push some more US groups to advocate for rehabilitation over retribution?

(For a more detailed description of a low-security Norwegian prison, read this.)