n researching the contemporary American penal landscape I happened upon a short commentary by the architectural historian Anthony Vidler published 20 years ago (1993), titled simply, “Spatial Violence”. The expression “spatial violence” to Vidler refers to architectural style as a carrier of power, particularly the ‘dark’ power of urban institutions that enclose and instrumentalize inhabitants yet whose apparent total power is also an illusion. To Vidler prisons serve as a particularly apt example of this illusion: following Foucault, Attica is a ‘machine presenting itself as a castle’, and following Ioan Davies (author of Writers in Prison), the prison is both habitable space and hostile space. Vidler’s pithy, provocative essay stuck with me, and inspired me to think about prison spaces in new ways.

I became interested in critical prison studies as an activist – as a volunteer and now decade-long executive board member of a local nonprofit prisoner rights group called the Lewisburg Prison Project. The Project’s focus is on conditions of confinement; that is, helping protect the civil and human rights of the 50,000 men and women incarcerated in prisons located in the rural Pennsylvania Middle (judicial) District. Our organization is dedicated to the principle that prisoners are persons with incontestable rights to justice and compassion, and it strives to provide safeguards to those ends. Motivated by my association with this group, I am presently at work on a number of projects related to historical geographies of mass incarceration in the US, and borrowing from Vidler, focusing on the “spatial violence” of late modern American prisons and jails.

One of the most troubling aspects of current trends in mass incarceration, and one that is sometimes overlooked, is the extent to which criminal violence is produced within prison walls, primarily in the form of staff-inmate or inmate-inmate violence (that is, rather than “on the street”). Once incarcerated and introduced into oftentimes-toxic prison culture, many formerly nonviolent offenders become violent ones. Methods of prison control dominating American corrections today have the adverse, and perverse, effect of increasing levels of fear, terror, and ultimately violence in prisons – with stabbings, beatings, and other types of assaults becoming more and more common occurrences, and sentences for the accused lengthened. Simply put, prisons and jails are violent places, and rather than stem violence, they tend to reproduce and even provoke it.

Though prisons and jails have become more closed off and inaccessible over the past few decades, one of my current research projects takes me inside to study relationships between spatial structure, philosophies of punishment, and the production of safety or violence in one large US county jail, the Douglas County Correctional Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Underlying my analysis is a common insight among geographers that the internal spatial design of an institution is both an integral part of the disciplinary regime but also a major influence on possible social relations – in this case, with respect to relationships possible among inmates, and between inmates and correctional staff. Specifically, I am examining the interactions taking place in what many in the corrections industry consider the modern, progressive jail ‘ideal’, the direct supervision model.

Within America’s contemporary carceral topography are three basic jail designs: traditional or first-generation linear design; second-generation remote surveillance design; and third-generation direct supervision design. Underlying each are particular architectures and philosophies of punishment. Omaha’s Douglas County Correctional Center is a wholly direct supervision facility. This means that it features officers inside each self-contained housing unit with no bars or glass impeding supervision, which is intended (among other things) to create a safe, stress-free environment for both inmates and staff. I am concerned with inmate experiences within this model of control. I am testing claims made about direct supervision, most usefully against other trends in the corrections industry today that have been wholly unsuccessful at reducing levels of prison violence through the largely opposite methods of intensified use of control units, solitary confinement, and lockdown – the modus operandi of USP-Lewisburg, the federal penitentiary I discuss in the paper featured in this forum. 


Vidler A (1993) Spatial Violence. Assemblage 2: 84-85.