Foucaultian Architecture: A Look at Modern Institutions

By: Brian Gialketsis


While French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault mentions the word “architecture” only 18 times throughout his book Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, his argument relies heavily on architecture’s ability to affect individual prisoners, specifically those captive in versions of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon structure. In the United States between 1840-1940, both the prison system and the system set up to care for the “insane” underwent reforms that aimed to separate the insane from criminal in ideological treatment and classification. The F-Wing of the Illinois Stateville Correctional Center, an example of Bentham’s panopticon, and the Northern Illinois Insane Asylum, also known as Elgin Insane Asylum, serve as models for, or representations of, the national treatment and perception of these distinct yet analogous types of captive subjects. Foucault shows the ability of architecture to discipline and exert power over a building’s occupants, although the effects of this supposedly reformed architecture often led to harsher disciplinary outcomes than were intended by architects or building planners. A close analysis of contemporary newspaper articles, case studies, pictures, and later-written secondary sources like those by Foucault reveal that the architectural reformers’ goals and ideals for prisons and insane asylums began to diverge but similarly had unintended consequences. This caused inmates in each institution to suffer by both today’s standards and those of the time and the distinction between criminality and insanity to blur. We can use the successes and shortcomings of past institutional reform movements as models for modern reform movements of America’s prison and mental health care institutions, focusing on Foucaultian rehabilitative reform of the individual by granting freedom and fostering individuality rather than reform of the institutions in which they are captive.

The Northern Insane Asylum at Elgin

Elgin Insane Asylum epitomized a new kind of architecture that corresponded with particular goals from building planners and architects, as well as psychologists and sociologists who wanted system reform. On 3 February 1872, the Chicago Daily Tribune illustrated the formal opening of the Northern Insane Asylum, where public officials declared the responsibility of the state to care for the insane, promoted the religious and moral obligation to help those in need, questioned what was driving or causing all of the insanity, and went so far as to say that the American Dream was causing insanity by causing societal and interpersonal stress (“Northern Insane Asylum”). In February of 1872, the Chicago Tribune reported upon the asylum’s interior and its treatment of patients, which revealed that patients were classified on a spectrum scale of insanity and provided with as much comfort as was possible without endangering other patients or themselves. Upon touring the facilities at Elgin Insane “Hospital,” as it was starting to be publicly called by the end of the nineteenth century, visitors were surprised to find no straitjackets or chains and no rooms in the basement. This illuminates a shift in the treatment of the insane as criminals, or “animals,” who are allowed to roam freely in society and are merely considered “different” rather than a subject that is in need of medical supervision, removal from society and confinement, as Foucault puts it in “Madness and Civilization” (“Another Account”; “Madness”). This medicalization of mental illness, according to Foucault, contributed to the equating of criminality with insanity in that both necessitated institutionalization. Foucault writes:

“In the reduction to animality, madness finds both its truth and its cure; when the madman has become a beast, this presence of the animal in man, a presence which constituted the scandal of madness, is eliminated: not that the animal is silenced, but man himself is abolished. In the human being who has become a beast of burden, the absence of reason follows wisdom and its order: madness is then cured, since it is alienated in something which is no less than its truth” (“Madness” 76).

Foucault’s subsequent work to Madness and Civilization, “The Birth of the Clinic,” remarks on a dehumanizing “medical gaze” imposed by supposed institutions of health. In 1792, at an asylum in Paris, insane inmates were released from their chains, marking a shift from treating the insane like animalistic prisoners to treating them more like human patients.

Some years later, in 1878, a Biennial Report of the Board of Trustees of the Elgin Insane Hospital created a clear distinction between the criminally insane and medically insane, stating that the criminally insane had no place in their institution. The article states, “The habits of the criminal insane are bad, and they exert an unhealthy influence on the other patients” (“Elgin Insane Asylum”). This quotation demonstrates the professionally perceived negative effect of housing criminals with “normal” insane patients, the former referring to the insane who had broken some law due to their insanity, and the latter referring to those benignly seeking medical help before their mental state caused them to formally become criminals. The report also notes of the new Cottage System for the insane by summarizing:

“When the State purchased the site for the hospital there were three farm-houses (two frame and one brick) on the grounds. As appropriation was made by the last Legislature for fitting up two of these houses for the accommodation of from twenty-five to thirty patients on the ‘cottage system.’ The cottages were first occupied in April, 1878, and are tastefully furnished, and the patients seem to enjoy their enlarged liberties.”
On multiple accounts starting in the 1870s, the institution requested funds for improvements to the facilities for the insane (“Elgin Insane Asylum”). This implies that Elgin Insane Asylum was not only undergoing reforms in its architecture, but also more subtly reforming its treatment of inmates.

Reforms: The Transition from the Kirkbride to the Cottage Plan for the Insane at Elgin

The transition from the Kirkbride Plan to the Cottage Plan marks a departure of the architectural intent in treatment of the insane from that of the treatment of prisoners; however, the conditions inside each institution caused comparable psychological suffering. Carla Yanni, a scholar on architecture in Europe and the United States from the 19th century to the present, writes about the transition from the Kirkbride Plan to the Cottage Plan in her book Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States. The Kirkbride Plan, also known as the “linear plan,” consisted of congregate buildings arranged in a V shape (Yanni 51). AMSAII, or the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, endorsed the Kirkbride Plan when the association released its architectural guidelines for insane asylums in the United States in 1851, and a publication by Thomas S. Kirkbride for the American Journal of Insanity furthered his plan even more (Yanni 51). Kirkbride’s Plan later reached a tipping point and received ample criticism when the Cottage Plan entered the discussion. Rather than the large and institutional-feeling architecture of the Kirkbride Plan, the Cottage Plan proponents advocated for “smaller therapeutic environments”, such as farmhouses or cottages, for insane “patients,” as they were starting to be called. Some radical insanity care reform activists believed in immersing the insane in the community, as is sometimes done today (Yanni 78).

In her book, social historian of architecture Carla Yanni details the polemical transition from the Kirkbride Plan to the Cottage Plan regarding architecture for insane asylums (Yanni). She reports:

“The Kirkbride plan was the cutting edge of medical architecture in the 1840s and 1850s, and the treatment enacted there, moral management, was similarly forwardlooking. Doctors thought their buildings would operate instrumentally, but they did not always. The AMSAII [Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane] held fast to the Kirkbride plan even while cottages were being constructed in the 1870s and tentative experiments with community care were under way in the 1880s. At the time of the debates between Kirkbride plan proponents and cottage promoters, both groups adhered to a general principle, namely, that an improved environment could enhance people’s lives, and moral management was attempted in both architectural types” (Yanni 18).

The notion of “moral management” is crucial in the development of care for the insane. Yanni notes that “asylums and prisons have often been compared by contemporary observers, since both building types exemplify architecture in the service of social control: individuals are managed and categorized through the use of surveillance” (Yanni 45). Yanni underlines the importance of the Foucaultian “power of the gaze” to enforce conformity in society at large and in controlled settings like insane asylums and prisons (Yanni 45). She writes, “Proponents of the segregate plan [or Cottage Plan] devalued architecture as part of the treatment of insanity… But in the nineteenth century, congregate hospitals dominated” (Yanni 104). The social historian explains regarding Kirkbride’s plan and thinking about the insane:

“Kirkbride was devoted to moral treatment, which required a change of daily habits— regular schedules were intended to make patients internalize self-control….Patients would live a regimented life, eat healthy food, get exercise, avoid the vicious city, and visit daily with the superintendent or his wife, the official matron of the institution. Additional principles included that patients should be unchained, granted respect, encouraged to perform occupational tasks (such as farming, carpentry, or laundry), and allowed to stroll the grounds with an attendant” (Yanni 38).

Reforms in the architecture and design of insane asylums marked a change in the types of institutions that housed insane patients but not necessarily a total annihilation of institutions. In this new model, landscape architecture and nature played a vital role. In 1894, an inspection of Elgin revealed peeling ceiling paint and tattered facilities in need of repair. The article also draws attention to the importance of pleasant aesthetics and landscape architecture in the treatment, or convalescence, of insanity (“Inspect Elgin’s”). Influential asylum doctor John S. Butler sent a letter to Frederick Law Olmstead declaring that the “hybrid” Cottage Plan, or “segregate plan,” served to “kill out the lunatic asylum.” Yanni argues that the segregate plan merely hinted at community-based care, but it was really just a different form of institutional care (Yanni 79). I will address modern “transinstitutionalization” later in the paper (Montross).

This institutional care may be perceived as negative but was much less physical and control-oriented than previous ideology surrounding care for the insane; instead, it emphasized liberation within the limits of discipline and safety. The Cottage Plan also allowed for seemingly endless expansion of the facilities, a potential relief for insane asylums that were susceptible to overcrowding as the population rose and more cases of insanity were identified. Cottages could be added quickly and relatively inexpensively to the grounds of an insane asylum, in contrast to the pricey and enormous Kirkbride Plan structures where every patient was housed “under one roof” (Yanni 79). Also, patients who were perceived to be incurably insane now had somewhere to stay for a longer period of time, since new cottages could always be added to the property upon the superintendent’s command (Yanni 84).

In “Center Building Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane,” Dixon notes that while the Center Building opened in 1872, two dining halls were added to the west of the main building with connected covered walks by 1892, and another linear Kirkbride Building, called the Annex, was added in 1891. However, he writes, “The Annex was the last building of the congregate type to be constructed on the grounds. Future buildings for patients were to be separate cottages, designed to house 100 each” (Dixon). A 1904 volume of Encyclopedia Americana describes the Cottage System as, “a form of construction for insane asylums and charitable institutions, much in vogue at the present time, in which large and imposing buildings are replaced by detached cottages” (Lloyd). The effects of this new architecture mark a supposed progress in care for the insane, but Foucault comes to question even the new institutions that seem less architecturally institutional.

The Stateville Correctional Center

The Stateville Correctional Center epitomizes the national transition from a prison system of punishment to a system of discipline and surveillance, which aligns with reformist architectural goals; however, the actual effects of the institution on prisoners caused suffering comparable to that of the new plan for insane asylums. A Chicago Daily Tribune article published on 24 January 1919 reveals that the facilities were much nicer at Stateville than the “old prison,” Joliet Penitentiary. Noting the number of convicts who had spent some time in Joliet who wanted to be transferred to Stateville, the paper states, “the fortunate ones go from insanitary, badly lighted, barred cages, redolent with the accumulated odors of many years, to a veritable country home in the midst of acres of green fields, where the air is fresh and clear and where the stars may be seen at night, where each man has a room and bath, where French doors, wire glassed, replace bars, and where there is always a view of the out of doors” (“Joliet Convicts”). This quote presents the move from Joliet to Stateville as positive and desirable for prisoners, and declares that many of the prisoners in Joliet wanted the upgrade or “graduation” for good behavior to the nicer facility (“Joliet Convicts”). Figure 1.1 depicts the interior of Stateville’s Cell House, featuring the panoptic architecture and a central guard tower (“Illinois’ New”). On 6 December 1924, Butzow wrote an article about the dedication of the Stateville Correctional Center. At the event, Warden John L. Whitman “declared that the function of the model prison would be the reformation of men who had run afoul of the law, not merely a place of punishment” (Butzow). The Warden’s statement shows the changing perception of prisoners at the time, from physical punishment and confinement to disciplinization and moral reform. Figure 1.2 depicts Warden Whitman giving tours of the new Stateville Correctional Center facilities by showing guests the cells.

Reforms: Stateville Correctional Center

As Jeffrey Adler notes in his work, “First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt,” crime and homicide rates in Chicago were particularly high between 1870-1930, as issues of race, national origin, alcoholism, domestic violence, and class characterized the turn of the 20th Century (Adler). This led to calls for many reform movements as society transitioned to a new expectation of civility and morality. In this process of reform, many parallels existed between insane asylums and prisons (i.e. more freedom and autonomy, with architecture to reflect this new approach), although a few striking differences separated the two (i.e. medicalization of insanity versus further criminalization of law-breakers). The State of Illinois constructed the Stateville Correctional Center in 1923 (“Felons Riot Again”) to contain prisoners just outside of Chicago and Joliet, where another noteworthy but reportedly “old” prison of Illinois, Joliet Penitentiary, is located (“Joliet Convicts”). The Stateville Correctional Center housed a variety of inmates in the “F-Wing”, where guards in a Benthamite panoptic tower could survey the inmates, whose cells faced inward from a ring at the central tower (Figure 1.3).

Foucault discusses how the panopticon structure contributes to the disciplinization and control that architecture imposes. He writes of prison reform between the 19th and 20th centuries, “The old simple schema of confinement and enclosure—thick walls, a heavy gate that prevents entering or leaving – began to be replaced by the circulation of openings, of filled and empty spaces, passages and transparencies” (“Discipline” 172). The goal was no longer merely to contain wrong-doers but actually to “render visible those who are inside [the institution],” to “transform individuals… to act on those it shelters, to provide a hold on their conduct, to carry the effects of power right to them, to make it possible to know them, to alter them” (“Discipline” 172). For Foucault, this disciplining contributed to a harsh and insidious modern punishment, one that leaves the captive subject bereft of free will or a chance at rehabilitation and reintroduction into society.

Construction of the captive subjects’ identities around the institution’s imposed architectural power reinforces a homogenization and totalizing effect for prisoners and the insane, framing them similarly as “others” that have wronged or opposed the status quo. Foucault argues that not only do we need separate institutions for different captive subjects, i.e. the criminal versus the insane, but also we must reform the institutions themselves such that they become less disciplinary and more rehabilitative. To fully understand Foucault’s ideological framework around discipline of the body and mind, we must first look at contemporary late 19th/early 20th century perceptions of both the prison and insane institutions.

Failures and Inadequacies of Each Institution

Both Elgin Insane Asylum and the Stateville Correctional Center may have exemplified architectural reformist ideals, but the subjects held captive within each institution demonstrate that the institutions’ conditions lacked humanity and compassion. Newspaper sources reveal that both institutions had many patients who either attempted to or successfully escaped, implying either that the conditions in the institutions were reprehensible or the subjects were true “criminals” in the sense that they had no regard for the laws of the state. While reform movements absolutely improved the conditions for captive subjects at the turn of the 20th century in these two types of institutions, modern reformers and thinkers such as Foucault argue for an even more civil approach to retribution, punishment and discipline by changing the institution altogether.

Multiple accounts appear in contemporary papers regarding possible misconduct or mistreatment of patients under the care of Elgin Insane Asylum. For example, in 1902 the Chicago Daily Tribune published an article about alleged brutality in Elgin, and legal action could not be taken until an investigation could be completed, thus leaving the patient in a potentially dangerous position in captivity (“Charges Brutality”). In 1904, the Tribune printed a defense of the Hospital’s superintendent, who had fired two hospital employees, called “attendants,” for alleged misconduct in a dispute about a hospital workers’ union. The paper reads:

“The superintendent did right. He is the head of the hospital, and the attendants, whether organized or unorganized, are not. It is his duty to maintain discipline. The idea of a ‘union’ of hospital employees or of the employees of any institution is preposterous. Such organizations can serve no legitimate purpose, but will interfere with the proper management of an institution. The discharged employees have made affidavits alleging that on different occasions patients have been treated so cruelly by attendants that they have died from their injuries” (“The Elgin”).

This quotation shows the extreme extent of the mistreatment of patients in Elgin Insane Asylum. In 1906, The New York Times reported on a Yale-educated man who escaped from Elgin and described it as “a living hell” where he was kept behind bars and “treated as a beast,” with no communication to the outside world (“Denounces Insane Asylum”). Just a year later, in 1907, a lengthy and detailed article told the story of “Fainting Bertha,” a woman who had escaped from Elgin twice, in addition to many other penitentiaries and asylums, and was deemed “the most troublesome prisoner of Illinois” (“Fainting Bertha”). From these examples, it becomes evident that many patients at Elgin were likely treated poorly, especially by today’s standards of human rights.

Despite its recent renovations, the Stateville Correctional Center also had its shortcomings regarding a lack of effective rehabilitative inmate treatment. A very newsworthy event occurred on 6 May 1926: seven convicts escaped from the Stateville Correctional Center by killing the Warden and threatening a guard to help them escape, making the paper not only in the Chicago Daily Tribune but also in The Washington Post, The New York Times and even the Los Angeles Times (“Flee Prison”; “Seven Convicts Kill”; A, P. N. W.; “Killing Illinois Warden, 7”). Figure 1.4 depicts a drawing from the Chicago Daily Tribune that details the escape route of the seven convicts, their escape being relevant because it marks the start of the decline of order in the Center over the following several years (“Flee Prison”). Note the circular architecture of the central building, where the primary panopticon was located for ultimate surveillance (“Flee Prison”). On March 19, 1931, The New York Times published an article about the prisoner’s riot in Stateville Correctional Center and described the state-of-the-art facilities. The New York Times described Stateville as a “model” prison, and mentioned of the “old prison,” Joliet. Figure 1.5 depicts aerial imagery of Stateville (“Illinois Convicts Rebel”).

In The New York Times special about the rebellion, the author writes, “In Chicago it was admitted that, although the prison was a ‘model’ for jails, it was not run as efficiently as such an institution should be because of politics” (“Seven Convicts Kill”). Inefficiencies slow the political, and therefore judicial, process. By 1934, the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote about the laxity of record keeping in Joliet & Stateville (“Errors, Laxity”), which shows that the institution, though a model for the rest of the United States, was far from perfect.

1931 headlines, both in Illinois and New York, were dominated by stories of unrest within the Stateville Correctional Center. This important detail shows that prisoners found ways to subvert their captors, or the state, by disrupting the order in the prison. By 1933, an article about a new prison law was instated, likely in response to the riots (“Killing Illinois Warden”) and other threats like the presence of a bomb and the confiscation of multiple makeshift weapons from prisoners’ cells (“Bomb is Found”). Interestingly, the warden at the time punished all prisoners if any dissent arose, which angered prisoners who didn’t participate in the riots and who had expressed good behavior. Guard was also strengthened as a response (“Killing Illinois Warden”). The new law detailed that Stateville Correctional Center would house first time offenders separately from repeat offenders so as to prevent intermingling of ideas and pedagogy between the experienced and inexperienced. Prisons were “jammed” full of convicts, and psychiatrists were first mentioned as crucial in the all-new processing of convict mental health or sanity (“Illinois Prisons Jammed”). In March of 1931, The New York Times detailed another Stateville riot attempt to set a pile of rags and paper ablaze. In a statement, the Warden listed three reasons for prison unrest: overcrowding, lack of sufficient work for prisoners, known today as “occupational therapy,” and distaste of the parole board/parole system (“Felons Riot Again”).

The Modern Institution: Shortcomings and Reform Efforts

A modern blurring between criminally and mentally ill exists, as revealed by a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice report titled, “Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates” (James). In 2014, former U.S. Treasury secretary, co-chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations and president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice, Robert Rubin, referred to this study in a commentary piece for The Wall Street Journal. He writes, “A study released in 2006 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 45% of federal prisoners, 56% of state prisoners, and 64% of local jail inmates suffered from mental-health problems” (Rubin). In Bruce Arrigo’s 2012 book “Punishing the Mentally Ill: A Critical Analysis of Law and Psychiatry,” the UNC Charlotte professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology critiques how the disciplines of law and psychiatry behave and how the mental health and justice systems operate. His books expose where, how, and why the identity and humanity of persons with psychiatric disorders are consciously and unconsciously denied. This novel is a modern scholarly take on the blurring between criminal and insane subjects (Arrigo).

Mass incarceration has emerged as a contentious example of this blurring in American prison systems. According to a report released by the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. rate of incarceration, with nearly one of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is five to ten times higher than the rates in Western Europe and other democracies (Rubin; “The Growth of Incarceration”). The costs of mass incarceration extend over multiple generations, and Rubin writes about the economic effect of incarceration:

“This is not only a serious humanitarian and social issue, but one with profound economic and fiscal consequences. In an increasingly competitive global economy, equipping Americans for the modern workforce is an economic imperative. Excessive incarceration harms productivity. People in prison are people who aren’t working. And without effective rehabilitation, many are ill-equipped to work after release” (Rubin).
This quote demonstrates a modern take on the failure of mass incarceration, the prison institutions in America, and rehabilitation or reintroduction programs.

In addition to mass incarceration, America has been scrutinized internationally for its use of the death penalty. As one of the first advocates for the abolition of capital punishment, Cesare Becarria writes in An Essay on Crime and Punishment, “These political sanguinary laws exist but for a time; they are temporary, because they are not founded in truth. They resemble the necessity which, in cases of extreme famine, obliges people to eat each other: they cease to eat men as soon as bread is to be had” (Becarria 74). Similar to Beccaria’s note of transitioning from cannibalism to civility, the time has come for reformation of the punishment system from disciplinary mechanisms of state power and control to truly rehabilitative programs that encourage development of the self and prepare captive subjects for eventual reintroduction into society. According to John D. Besser, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, America’s Founding Fathers read Beccaria’s text by candlelight, and it greatly shaped the revolutionary period (Besser). Mass incarceration and the death penalty remain the reality of the American justice system, and each contributes through their isolation of the captive subject from the status quo, “othering” the prisoner and likewise the insane patient. It is important to note, however, that while the blurring of criminal and insane has overt negative implications, like treating those in need of medical assistance as criminal, the blurring can be reappropriated to effectively rethink each institution without essentializing them as identical.

The modern question is whether America’s Founding Fathers would support the extremely high incarceration rates in America that divide society by identity categories and life experiences (e.g. racial, class, gender, etc.). After all, this modern American prison system does not promote fostering individuality and personal freedoms in rehabilitative efforts. The aforementioned professor of law, John D. Bessler, also notes how this staunch American stance on capital punishment contributes to America’s isolation from the global community. He writes, “In recounting how the abolition of the death penalty is rapidly becoming a norm of international law, this Article further examines how America—with its retentionist position—is becoming increasingly isolated from the world community” (Bessler). Even an American Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, wrote of the need for institutions to change with the mind and the times. Our institutions are outdated. They currently essentialize mentally ill and criminal subjects, often blurring the two types of identities through disciplinary methods, instead of focusing on the intersections of the marginalized groups, which could harness productive potential currently lost to containment.

A Foucaultian lens of personal liberty and reformation highlights the greater negative ideological externalities of mass incarceration and the death penalty for the individual subject and for American society as a whole. Mass incarceration and the death penalty are extreme cases of Foucault’s disciplinary techniques, removing large numbers from our society either through captivity or death and demonstrating that while the methods of disciplining have changed since the sixteenth century (e.g. the public torturing of Damiens in France), the effects of re-edification and re-entrenchment of the juridical subject in a juridical state have largely remained (i.e. fear of punishment if diverging from societal norms and laws, belief in the system, etc.).

A 2015 article published by The New York Times titled “The Modern Asylum” gives insight into the shortcomings of modern care for the insane, or mentally ill: “Patients with chronic, severe mental illnesses are still in facilities — only now they are in medical hospitals, nursing homes and, increasingly, jails and prisons, places that are less appropriate and more expensive than long-term psychiatric institutions” (Montross). The author of “Falling Into the Fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters With the Mind in Crisis” and a staff psychiatrist at Butler Hospital in Providence, R.I., Christine Montross, continues her pointed critique of the modern asylum with the following:

“So institutionalization is already happening, but it is happening in a far less humane way than it could be. The patient with autism who has spent a year in a psychiatric hospital is analogous to the patient with schizophrenia who has spent a year in prison: Both suffer in inappropriate facilities while we pat ourselves on the back for closing the asylums in favor of community care” (Montross).

Here she argues something similar to Foucault’s thinking around the failures of the modern institution. Montross also points out the difference between the goals of the modern asylum and the actual effects, noting that the goal is deinstitutionalization but instead we see a “transinstitutionalization,” or a changing of institutions for the mentally ill.

Modern prison reforms align with yet further architectural experimentation and transformation, in order to most effectively treat and rehabilitate prisoners. In a blog post for Penal Reform International, Senior Corrections analyst and planner for CGL/RicciGreene Associates, a pre-eminent criminal justice planning and design firm based in New York that specializes in providing “secure and normative environments that promote positive behavioral change and successful re-entry,” Dr. Marayca López writes:

“For the last two decades, in the midst of a world-wide prison population growth, the value of correctional architecture as a catalyst for positive outcomes has pushed forward-thinking architects to reassess classical models, rethink prison designs and experiment with innovative spatial concepts embedded with theories from sociology, psychology, and even ecology. These better align the physical plant of correctional facilities with the concept of humane treatment and contemporary priorities of inmate rehabilitation and successful reintegration” (Lopez).

Additionally, a 2013 Huffington Post article details the need for modern architectural reform in prisons in response to a prison hunger strike (Zara).

Traditional institutions tended to lack a core analysis of what it means to be human and how to change or effectively re-teach the individual. To remedy this, Dr. Marayca López pinpoints eight fundamentals to effective rehabilitation “institutions,” as follows: “Be based on the premise that people are capable of change and improvement; be based on ‘evidence-based practices’; make a ‘good neighbor’; be right-sized; Promote safety, security, ease of supervision, and circulation; provide a healthy, safe environment; provide a normative (less institutional, more residential-like) and spatially stimulating living environment for occupants; be program and services-oriented and provide a variety of spaces” (Lopez). These principles demonstrate the modern progressive take on the shortcomings of modern institutions for both the insane and criminal.

New “institutions” require open spaces, natural aesthetics and sensory experiences, spiritual and natural nourishment, an outlet for creativity, self-development and expression and access to freedom. Rather than locking up every person who breaks a law, we might look at the drivers of crime and focus on those aspects of society, and we might provide people who have supposedly wronged society with a chance at redemption and a new life that lives up to the promises of the American Dream. Current international human rights standards for prisoners and those with mental illness provide basic principles by which global countries are supposed to abide (“Basic Principles”; Francis v. Jamaica; “Safeguards”). America should consider human rights in its rehabilitation and punishment institutions.

Foucault’s Institutions

To Foucault, institutions for prisoners and the insane are social failures. These disciplinary systems of surveillance hinder or obliterate individuality and freedom that could be instead cultivated in rehabilitation or re-education. Foucault writes of the dangers of state punishment and modern institutions, which are thought to be more “humane” than hangings in public squares or cells for the insane. The latent trait of this new disciplinary punishment is that power, despite still oppressing the subject, looks “kind,” whereas in the past, punishment was clearly painful or unpleasant and on display, such that rebellions and protests could “sympathetically” defend the convict’s body (Marshall & De Botton). The executioner, rather than the prisoner or the insane person, could become the object of shame. This new power seems invisible, but instead Foucault describes it as unverifiable. The power’s visibility, yet its non-verifiability, makes it more challenging to resist state power, and thus Foucault views modern systems and institutions as barbaric and primitive, despite their supposed “progress” from earlier times (Marshall & De Botton).

Foucault’s pedagogy includes a new vision of the optimistic self-satisfaction he claims society exhibits in modern times, turning instead to lessons from the past in order to analyze the now. Foucault suggests that modernity is lost when progress is pretended through loss of spontaneity and creativity. History provides a “storehouse” from which philosophical historians like Foucault can “observe dominant ideas and institutions and question them by looking at their ideas and revolutions,” or in context of this paper, reform movements (Marshall & De Botton).”

A New Wave?

I call for a modern shift in thinking about reform movements from a focus on the institutions and their architecture to fostering individuality and freedom through separation of different types of institutions (e.g. for criminal versus the insane subject), inclusion of human rights and value, rehabilitation and an ecological “returning to nature.” Foucault sees these institutions as locations where state agents perpetuate and maintain state power by “othering” and containing anybody who fails to follow the rules of the system. Using Foucault’s ideological framework of discipline, modern prison and insane asylum reformers should focus their efforts on the buildings in which the people they are attempting to protect or defend reside and in which the captive subject adopts the worldview of the institution. The Cottage Plan at Elgin Insane Hospital and the new disciplinary panopticon built at Stateville Correctional Center both signify a breakthrough in reforming, or controlling by observation, individual subjects; however, each also exemplifies disciplinization mechanisms that Foucault warns can threaten freedom and individuality. In further research, it would be valuable to explore how we might resist essentializing mentally ill and criminal subjects by breaking down the disciplinization mechanisms and instead focusing on further reforming our institutions.

In his work, “Language & Symbolic Power,” French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu argues that institutions have the capability to perform “social magic.” In other words, the rites of institutions, or the rituals that people go through within institutions, are related to the performative and shape the way in which an individual thinks in that he or she adopts the institution’s perspective of themselves and of the world (Bourdieu). Both the architecture of reformed Elgin and Stateville imposed institutional ideology on their subjects, and thus created a power dynamic where the subjects would self-regulate via surveillance of each other and ultimately themselves; subjects lost their worldly identity to become merely “insane” or “convict.” These institutionally created identities, constructed from disciplinization, exemplify why the reform movements were necessary—to rehabilitate and reintroduce members of society who had been led astray, by misfortune or misdeed. In the prison, the intent was “visible” but “unverifiable” power (“Discipline” 201), while in the asylum, the intent included power dynamics of containment but was rehabilitative in nature and began to distinguish mental healthcare from institutions of prisons.

The reformed architecture of the panopticon employed at the Stateville Correctional Center perpetuates notions of total control via surveillance, and Elgin Insane Asylum demonstrates the transition from the “Kirkbride Plan” for the insane, which dominated the mid-19th Century, to the “Cottage Plan.” Foucault makes us question whether the technology, or instrument of power, called “discipline,” becomes in some ways more insidious, more destructive to a person’s unique character, in its impacts than physical punishment. According to Foucault, at least in cases where brutal torturing and executions took place there existed the ability to protest or resist the controlling power of the state. Once this power becomes “visible but unverifiable,” the disciplinization permeates into the every action of captive subjects. No longer are people afraid of the physical.

In line with a true Foucaultian philosophical historicism, history cannot be read with “academic disinterestedness” but rather must be read with a modern lens, helping us lead better lives in our own times. We can use the Stateville Correctional Center and Elgin Insane Hospital as catacombs through which we enter the world of reformation. Rather than succumbing to the assumption that reform movements function irrespective of their relativity to progress from earlier times, we must approach reform movements with elements of human rights considerations and an idea of exactly what we intend to reform, the institution itself or the individual inside that institution.

In Discipline & Punish, Foucault summarizes his thesis regarding the revolutions in prisons from the 16th Century to now in one sentence:

“We have, then, the sovereign and his force, the social body and the administrative apparatus; mark, sign, trace; ceremony, representation, exercise; the vanquished enemy, the juridical subject in the process of requalification, the individual subjected to immediate coercion; the tortured body, the soul with its manipulated representations, the body subjected to training”

This quote demonstrates Foucault’s take on the marked shifts in thought around the prison’s purpose and method of achieving it. From monarchical subject to juridical subject to the modern disciplinary subject, Foucault if he were alive today might have something to say about where we are regarding our “progress.” We now understand that American institutions intended for correction remain unsuccessful at “correcting;” instead they merely contain.

A new wave of thinking about the institutions intended to re-educate and reintegrate individuals who have wronged the law somehow needs to arise—a new discourse of rehabilitation that focuses on the individual’s ability to change. Rather than viewing criminals and the insane as “others” by highlighting their difference, we should value their sameness as humans. A paradigm shift needs to occur where we start viewing criminals and the insane as somehow wronged by society rather than having wronged society. Reform movements focused on architecture of institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but modern reform movements must focus on the individual, rehabilitation through freedom and his or her possible future contributions to society.


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