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Voice Paper II: recreating the prison space

ishin's picture

When looking through the pictures together, one of the main themes we’ve noticed is the similarity between the physical spaces of prisons and schools.  This is apparent when we compare Erin’s photos of her school to Chinese prisons, Johannah’s images of a school cafeteria space to a prison block, and the photos of Overbrook high school as well.  To be sure, the feelings and connotations associated with these spaces are far from what we can call comfortable, positive, or perhaps even palpable.  This is evident in their harsh fluorescent lights, the cramped living spaces, the bare, white washed walls, and more generally, the stark, unfriendly nature of these buildings.  In other words, these places are designed to evoke bad feelings.

Because of this, I start to get a little worried about how people might approach the solving this problem. More specifically, I’m worried that people might think it’s appropriate to believe that the structure of these spaces are inherently evil and, by extension, believe that these spaces must be completely abandoned in order to address problems within these two institutional spaces.  The reason why I worry is because I don’t believe a complete rejection of these institutional buildings and is necessarily fruitful, or even possible.

When I say this, I want to emphasize that I am talking about not abandoning the physical building and am not referring to a metaphorical space.  That is to say, I’m rejecting the notion of tearing down or abandoning the physical structure of these prisons and schools.  Instead, I want to propose that it is possible and even beneficial to attempt to reclaim and recycle these spaces as rather than forsaking them to be forever associated with all things wrong with the school and prison system.  This reclamation and recycling process would be

 How such reclaiming and recycling these spaces would practically play out wouldn’t be too far from what we’ll be doing in the Cannery soon enough: we, as people who are attempting to glean a positive experience out of these spaces, will work within the confines of the tiny, trailer.  By doing so, we’ll hope to start associating the space with the learning experiences we’ve had together and by extension, hopefully with more hope.  That is to say, instead of rejecting these buildings as unusable due to the space and the connotations associated with it, we do what we can with what we have, and by doing so, subvert what is typically associated with these places. 

By no means am I against refurbishing and reconfiguring the spaces inside so that they may possibly be more presentable, comfortable, and give inmates more private space; in fact, I think that’s a part of reclaiming these spaces.  What I do want to say is it could potentially be a huge waste of resources not to attempt to reconfigure these spaces to mean something more positive.  It costs money to tear them down, takes a lot of tar, cement, and gas to make something new in place of it, and what’s more, it’s also a lot of time that could be used to put efforts in other places.

The reason why I chose to write about this has to do with two experiences:  my time at the high school I took photos of for our previous Vision assignment and also being informed that the space next to the Cannery is no longer in use.  To speak to the first experience, I want to mention my reasons for choosing the two photos I did: the photo is of a part of a high school near my house that is designed by a prison architect, and the people in the photo are of my best friends.  I have nothing but great memories there—it was the place we’d hang out in for hours upon hours in the summer after my sophomore year of college passing a ball, playing truth or dare, and just talk.  My own high school had the same sort of design to it, and admittedly, I was fortunate enough to have a great high school experience—one filled with great friends and having a good time.  The photos I chose remind me that the high schools around my area were indicative of the problems with how education is often approached, but it also reminds me that people can still enact change and begin to think more positively within the (physical and metaphorical) structures that we already have.

To then speak to when I found out that the original prison next to the Cannery was no longer in use, the information got me frustrated.  This frustration is based in knowing that there was large over-crowding within prisons and that there could probably be ways for that space to be utilized to assist the programs that the warden of the Cannery would like emplace.  At the very least, they could renovate the space so that inmates could sleep there.  What’s more, I can’t help but think that the way they treat the prison as a discard-able piece of land is a metaphor to how they understand the people they are meant to contain.

I don’t want to deny that we should erase certain connotations with these buildings—it is important to remember what these spaces once were and remember the purpose of their original design.  I also don’t want to deny problems that may arise from trying to restructure these buildings (i.e. where does inmates go while they are trying to do construction, etc.).  What’s more, I don’t want to say that we should not radically change our thoughts to considering whether incarceration should eventually be abolished altogether.  What I do want to say is that any of these changes take time and must be given the proper amount of space to grow into something good and sustainable.  Going into these spaces and attempting to change how we think of them is a good step to getting to where we want to in this endeavor.