Sunday, October 3, 2010

Archaeology of Confinement


         Last week I saw an interview with Sara Shourd who has recently been released from prison in Iran after fourteen months of confinement. Sara along with two friends was captured and arrested while hiking, the group unknowingly and supposedly having crossed over onto the territory of Iran from Iraq, where they were visiting. Sara’s vivid description of her imprisonment made me wonder about the architecture of small, enclosed, barred places and what that entails, these thoughts in turn directly leading to my brief yet highly impressionable experience of attending New York public high school. The institutions of prison and school ideologically and socially are supposed to be on two different ends of the spectrum, the first expressing restriction, the latter symbolizing knowledge, choice and therefore freedom, yet on an architectural or spatial level they can be eerily similar. How then, might these opposing cultural concepts executed in unified spatial fashion might translate to the future generations interested in the 20th and early 21st century New York City?  I would imagine that the physical data such as the ruins themselves, texts and visual data might be confusing and lead to such questions as: was the NYC public school designed with “bad” kids in mind specifically?  Was there an understanding that kids from a low to average income class in NYC were naturally small criminals? 
            Being brought up in a culture of small schools, no school guards and open spaces I could not deal with metal detector doors, barred windows, security guards and restriction on leaving school premises between classes. Yet clearly lots of kids are able to function under these circumstances of seriously restricted freedom, perhaps it has to do with one’s exposure to such surroundings early.

            Reminiscing about my teen years in turn made me think about the professional thief I used to know. Part of this mans’ coping methods were committing a crime every late fall and letting himself be caught by the law so he could spend the winter in jail. The crime however had to be just the right kind of a crime so he would be locked up all of winter but let out in the spring. He thought of prison as a retreat, good food, comfortable warm cell and stimulating company.  Clearly, to some jail, far from punishment, in fact represents safety and comfort.

Related reference:

Casella, Elenor C. Landscapes of Punishment and Resistance: A Female Convict Settlement in Tasmania, Australia.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish. Part 2 & 3.
Holtorf Cornelius and Reybrouck Van David. Towards an Archaeology of  Zoos.


Gigs and Digs said...

Fascinating post! This brought back memories to my high school years. I attended an all girl's Catholic high school for the first two years, and a "private" public school for my last two years. Both were in Jersey City - diverse in demographics much like NYC. The latter of the two had the metal detectors, barred windows, required hall passes and sign out sheets to use the bathrooms, security cameras, and security guards monitoring each floor. These things were absent from the Catholic high school. I suppose Catholic school girls "posed no threat." Families of Jersey City often placed their children in private schools (mostly Catholic ones) for safety reasons, other than for a disciplined and structured education.

When I transferred schools, I do admit to wondering if moving to a public school implied an increased chance of getting shoved into a locker. Though, this seemed unlikely since the school had a reputation for being "nerdy." Seeing the metal detectors didn't really surprise me, considering past rare incidences in other high schools (Catholic ones, included) of students being in possession of knives and even guns. In a way, the metal detectors were both offensive and comforting at the same time.

As for the security guards, they were really friendly upon acquaintance, so the intimidation tactic wore off quickly. Then again, being a girl, Asian, [insert other irrelevant stereotype here], and being unsuspected of disruptive behavior might have something to do with my particular perspective. Nevertheless, the jail-like qualities of the public school spaces didn't really phase me for the most part.

An interesting freedom at the public school, though, was the ability to leave the school premises for lunch. Ironic jail-break? This was a privilege only granted to seniors in my Catholic high school, which to me seemed more restrictive with straight-faced nuns, random uniform inspections (skirts had to reach the knees), unpermitted self-expression (via jewelry, particular hairstyles, heeled shoes etc.) and a generally conservative atmosphere.


Isalicus said...

To complicate the Prison/School dichotomy further: many years ago I once wrote a class paper about songs sung by the Calabrian mafia (the so-called 'Ndranghetta), some of these dealt with prison as .. a school for becoming a criminal.

On the music:

Stephen said...

Both modern prisons and schools were often designed with an idea in mind that's a holdover from nineteenth century public planning and architecture (or alternately, their architecture is simply modeled on that of older institutions): that orderly spaces create orderly habits and therefore shape orderly people.

schools are meant to mold young people into productive citizens (as opposed to criminals or grad students), while prisons are meant to re-form a disorderly space (the mind of a criminal) into an orderly one through mimesis of exterior conditions. notably, neither of these actually work particularly well.

i like your story about the thief, by the way.

Camille said...

This post reminds me of my high school and its gradual progression towards feeling like a prison. I went to a public school, but in earlier years it always felt more like a private school because the school was so small and we were allowed open campus for lunch. In my senior year; however, they installed magnetically locking doors so that people could not leave the building during non-lunch hours. This caused such a big uproar that for the senior prank, a sign was put up in front of the high school that said "Highland Park Penitentiary" instead of High School. In the end, the administrators were not able to lock the doors my senior year because they had not figured out how to get them to unlock for fire drills! In any case, I agree with the view that schools can often seem like prisons and I would argue that a separation between these two institutions would provide for better learning in schools. Students need to have the freedom to think outside the box and create new ideas; when their persons are confined, their thoughts go towards the walls of their confinement instead of the world beyond.

CateS said...

I had never thought to look at prison as a place of safety. It's similar to something I read a while back about homeless people checking themselves into mental institutions for the same reason of avoiding winter. I know that hospital ERs also are affected by a shorter term version of this. I wonder if the man you mention's method is more prevalent than we might imagine.

elizabeth said...

on the archaeology of confinement--Michael Kennedy, a new phd student in the department, has done some remarkable photographic work on al fara'a, an israeli detention center in the west bank deliberately left intact as a "ruin" of sorts after its use as a prison ceased in 1995. his work focuses on the traces of this recent past--particularly in the form of inscriptions left by prisoners on the walls--and integrates them with testimonies, oral history, and other artifacts of the past: