How We Got from Prisons Located in Cities to City-like Prisons

Special Report : Space and the social order
A Relationship between Metamorphoses and Contradictions
By Grégory Salle

This article argues that, following the prison crisis that took place during the “1968 Years,” the ideal of prisons conceived as cities has replaced the previous ambition (declining in theory and ineffective in practice) to integrate prisons into the city. To this end, the approach adopted is first genealogical, and then sociological. On the one hand, three reports by special commissions (in 1974, 1985, and 1996) are analyzed to emphasize the changes that affected the official way of thinking the strained relationship between prison life and urban life. This tension has progressively approached resolution via an understanding of the city as existing within the prison rather than the other way round. Over the years, the requirement to include prisons within the surrounding cities gradually vanished, being supplanted by the analogical projection of prisons designed as small towns. On the other hand, fieldwork research conducted in one of these new prisons is used to underline a striking paradox: even though the prison layout is supposed to mirror ordinary urban life, it in fact hinders the project to create a semblance of socialization within the walls. This can not only interpreted as the failure of an impossible assimilation, but can also be regarded as a kind of success: a utilitarian rationalization in the control of the space, in the interests of both economy and security.

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