What Makes a Prison “State of the Art”?

It’s triangular.

Thomson Correctional Center

Federal officials visited a correctional center in Thomson, Ill., on Monday, to see if it might be appropriate for housing detainees from Guantanamo Bay. A statement from the governor’s office described the prison as a “virtually vacant, state of the art facility.” What makes a prison “state of the art?”

A triangle shape, in part. Modern prisons are generally designed with three sides, no more than two stories of cells lining the perimeter, and communal activities like dining in the center. The shape supposedly allows guards stationed in the middle to see every corner of the building, with better sight lines than you’d get from a rectangular layout. (The triangle design came into fashion in the United States after World War II and soon spread to other countries.)

Escapes from prison are very rare, and, at least in the 1990s, the numbers were declining. Nevertheless, the Thomson Correctional Center is surrounded by a 15-foot alarmed, electrified fence. This technology—used in place of the more old-fashioned concertina-wire-lined fence—allows for fewer guard stations, since whoever is on duty can redirect his or her attention to the section of the fence where the alarm was triggered. (A guard tower costs about $250,000 annually to staff.) An electronic-fingerprint identification system governs movement within the prison, and cameras monitor almost the entire facility around the clock.

Despite these protections, Thomson is far from the most secure prison in the country. It’s not even the most secure prison in Illinois. There are 31 “supermax” prisons in the United States. The only federal supermax is in Florence, Colo., and was designed to keep those on the outside from engineering a jailbreak. (Many of its earliest inmates were high-ranking members of drug cartels, with powerful friends in command of heavily-armed militias.) As such, the site is built to be disorienting, with nearly identical wings and small cell windows that look into an interior courtyard. That way, a prisoner will have a very difficult time explaining to an accomplice where in the building he’s being kept. Convicts spend more than 22 hours alone in their 8-by-12-foot rooms each day, which further limits their knowledge of the place. (The federal supermax currently houses Ramzi Yousef, who helped plan and execute the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.)

The state of the art in prisons has changed greatly through the years. Until the early 1800s, American prisons were cavernous open spaces where men, women, and children lived together with little security. Horrified by the sex, drinking, and crime occurring inside the prison walls, religious groups arranged for the erection of Eastern State Penitentiary, America’s first modern prison, in 1829. Each inmate had his own cell—including a private exercise yard—where he lived out his entire sentence. The model was enormously popular and was adopted around the world. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831, his primary goal was to evaluate the prison for France.

Problems with the new design began to emerge soon after: It required too much space, for example, and, inmates who could not leave their rooms were unable to work in the kitchens, factories, or gardens. New York developed an alternative based on tiny cells—many less than 3 feet in width—and large communal factories and dining areas.

This layout proved to be economical, but it was prone to riots. The congregation of large groups of inmates for meals or work was a potential danger: The dining hall at San Quentin, for example, could seat 1,800 prisoners, more than enough to overwhelm the 20 or so guards on duty. The self-contained modern prison with smaller cell blocks arose in the middle of the 20th century and remains dominant.

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Explainer thanks Norman Johnston of Arcadia University and John D. Quest of Lantz-Boggio Architects P.C.

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