By Victoria Bergbauer

What is the architecture of confinement? In what ways do spaces of confinement materialize? How do individuals live the experience of being confined? Survivors, activists, architects, designers, artists, and scholars from history and law gathered to discuss these questions at Princeton University on April 14.

When my fellow organizer Basile Baudez, assistant professor at Princeton University, and I embarked on the organization of a conference on the architecture of confinement, we had hoped that this gathering of perspectives would bring into one space individuals and their ideas, rarely found in one dialogue. The result exceeded our expectations. Engaging speakers in a cross-disciplinary conversation through individual sessions and round tables, the event shed light on the architecture of confinement from a multitude of perspectives. The broad reach of the speakers’ presentations was mirrored by the enthusiastic reactions from the in-person audience, as well as viewers that followed the event remotely. Themes of site, time, care, and the individual framed this exchange. Acting as guiding threads, they framed a day that sampled the presentations of a diversity of speakers, ideas, and initiatives located across the US.

Formerly incarcerated individuals Nafeesah Goldsmith, chair of New Jersey Prison Watch, Ibrahim Sulaimani, executive director of Transformative Justice Initiative, and Een Jabriel, regional manager of the Petey Greene Program in New Jersey, opened the conference by sharing their experiences. Moderated by Jill Stockwell, director of Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative, the panelists’ exchange stressed ties between time and architecture. A carceral setting radically changes the ways in which people experience the passage of time, the three panelists agreed. The architecture of confinement restricts sensorial responses; individuals lose the common awareness of time, constructed by the surrounding built environment. Being confined inside a jail, while waiting for a trial, leads to a different experience than finding oneself in a prison space that is tied to a sentence, set post-trial. Not counting the days, carving out special moments to mark time, setting goals for oneself, reading body language, and acquiring skills, such as lip reading, become defense mechanisms to environments that seek to suppress the senses. Environments that extend beyond the walls of confinement, haunting individuals as shadow-spaces of trauma.

Is a future, free of such spaces of trauma, conceivable? Architect Annie Kountz and designer Tamara Jamil from MASS (Model of Architecture Serving Society) Design Group discussed this question in their illuminating presentation. Tracing the violent history of mass incarceration, they showed that this phenomenon is rooted in the history of slavery, linked through a persisting ideology of human caging and a racially oppressive construct of ideas. They, then imagined a prison-free future and presented possible ways of ending spaces of in-carceration by designing for de-carceration. The audience followed plans of reconceived, communal-based settings. Spaces appeared that stressed human interrelatedness rather than broken relations and isolation. By insisting that architecture was never neutral, the speakers sketched out plans, such as the recasting of a traditional court layout as an environment that put notions of oneness at the fore and decentralized power. A jail setting appeared in new light through the inclusion of community infrastructure. Rather than replacing a prison space with another space of confinement, innovative and imaginative architectural projects, like the conception of a healing justice retreat center, could contribute to the reimagining of societies that moved beyond mass incarceration.

A further way of recasting and breaking with spaces of confinement arose with the conference’s second panel session. In a conversation moderated by Miriam Taylor, PhD student at Tulane University, Syrita Steib, director of Operation Restoration, Dolfinette Martin, Operation Restoration’s housing director, and artist Anastasia Pelias, shared the curation process of Per (Sister): Incarcerated Women. In this exhibition, which opened at the Newcomb Art Museum in 2019 and which is now travelling across the country, thirty formerly incarcerated women were partnered with thirty artists, as well as community organizations, stakeholders, and those directly impacted by the prison system to share the stories of currently and formerly incarcerated women in Louisiana. Syrita Steib and Dolfinette Martin shared their stories of persistence and experiences of confinement in interviews that resounded through the exhibition space and allowed artists to create works reflecting that experience of pain, resilience, and power. To defy the spatial strategies of prison spaces – settings of “re-trauma” in the words of Dolfinette Martin – curtains replaced walls. The exhibition incorporated an interactive sensory room that broke with architectures of confinement in their aims of suppressing emotions and senses. Formerly incarcerated women acted within and through space to own their individual stories.

Individual stories continued to arise in the contributions of historians Wendy Warren, associate professor at Princeton University, and Sowande’ Mustakeem, associate professor at Washington University. Mustakeem saw the lives of three women, incarcerated in nineteenth-century Missouri, as windows into the worlds of confinement. These individuals became the object of wide media coverage, shocked, and were part of a public memory that sought to manage the unruly. Shedding light on carceral spaces that detonated networks of power, making and unmaking people and their everyday lives, Mustakeem traced the trajectories of three women, “three interlinked shadows of death,” in her words. Individual voices were heard in Warren’s presentation, Building the Colonial Prison. Her reading of letters sent by families on behalf of women and girls, accused in the 1692-Salem-Witchcraft trials shed light on spatial aspects in colonial times. While materials, sites, and individual circumstances varied, the prison appeared as a constant across colonial, regional variances. Warren countered considerations of today’s prison as being separated from premodern spaces of confinement and highlighted the continuing throughlines in the history of the prison. Its persisting strangeness took shape in the seemingly distant voices of families and their condemnations of the witch trials of the seventeenth century.

As the conference pressured chronological boundaries, the interrelated nature of the architecture of confinement also became apparent through a rupture between the inside and outside of confinement. New-York-based architect Ibrahim Greenidge’s presentation “Home – Spatial Experiences of Confinement” drew out the ways in which spatial strategies of confinement act both inside and outside prisons and jails. The audience followed the materialization of exclusionary-built environment and their functioning as modes of control across places, like New York, Detroit, and South Africa. Greenidge pointed to passive, discriminatory strategies that could materialize in the use of algorithms in mor tgage applications as part of government redlining policies. These denied applicants the possibility of building a home, when the neighborhoods, often constituted of racial and ethnic minorities, they resided in, were classified as hazardous to investment. Stressing the varied nature of confinement, Greenidge went on to trace individual mechanisms that contributed to spatial segregation, referring to the example of the post-WWII constructed Levittown. Active forms of excluding groups in their everyday lives, extending from the emplacement of fences or buffers to relocation, emerged, as Greenidge shared images of avenues and expressways separating two communities, canals that were purposefully left without a bridge to deny crossing, or roads that were cut off in the middle. Rural landscapes, urban settings, suburb towns, built environments manifest and perpetuate strategies of exclusion and confinement.

Andrea Armstrong, professor of law at Loyola University, continued to break with dichotomies in her presentation on healthcare and deaths in carceral spaces. Making the invisible visible, Armstrong shed light on prison and jail spaces. She shared reports that showed the lack of healthcare provisions within these hidden settings of confinement. Viewers could follow images that Andrea Armstrong took within carceral settings in Louisiana during her work on, a database and website that tracks death inside jails and prisons. Healthcare is mostly delivered to cell sites and not in specialized medical spaces. Making conditions of healthcare visible across Louisiana’s correctional facilities, her research showed that within these architectures of confinement, illness remained the leading cause of death. As access, delivery, and administration of health care are insufficient, care is particularly lacking within solitary confinement and isolation cells, seemingly the most surveilled spaces, yet marking the highest number of suicides.

In the subsequent session on care, Anna Arabindan-Kesson, assistant professor at Princeton University, and Princeton-University PhD candidate Jessica Womack presented their work on Art Hx, a digital platform of object-based narratives on medicine, art, race, and their ties in the British Empire. Their presentation visualized the architecture of confinement in yet another way. How have histories of colonialism sustained medicine? In what ways did medicine and race shape colonial expansion? How was the access to care for some predicated on the inaccessibility for others? How was difference articulated? The strong ties between medicine, colonialism, and Empire took shape in Arabindan-Kesson’s and Womack’s presentation, as they showed how forms of medical care were used to discipline and manage in the colonial conquest: conquered landscapes would be transformed to care for Europeans’ health in their expansion of empires. The project of colonialism relied on the exploitation of certain groups. This reliance emerged, for example, from their discussion of a 1787-etching by the British caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson that showed well-dressed British elites receiving new sets of teeth after these had been extracted from poor children. In evoking such questions, their presentation drew out the ways in which the historical archive becomes itself an architecture of confinement. Art Hx breaks common lines of confinement by reading anew objects that reveal the deeply flawed practices of care in colonial settings. Rethinking ethics and methodology, this collaborative project recasts the archive and maps connections between different stories.

A retracing of connections across places and spaces marked the conference’s closing session. Heather Ann Thompson, professor of history at the University of Michigan, underlined the persistence of the past. “Why are we still here”, Thompson asked in her discussion of the age of carceral crisis. Referring to her Pulitzer-prize winning Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, Thompson questioned the persisting spatial logics and conditions of spaces of confinement. Demands made by the Attica Brothers fifty years ago for the end of solitary confinement, for the elimination of unfair labor conditions, or for the improvement of health care, remain unheard. Practices of punishment are interrelated with place and space. Concrete conditions within carceral settings are unchanged or have worsened.

The themes of site, time, care, and the individual, were not confined to individual sections but represented across all of them. Rather than offering a reductive definition of “the architecture of confinement,” each session broke with confining lines of demarcation. Comprising spaces, places, archives, language, the built environment, landscape strategies, the architecture of confinement and its far-reaching and changing contours took shape in the conference. The following day, presenters and invited guests continued their dialogue on this diversity during an interactive workshop. Princeton-University PhD candidates Spencer Weinreich on the history of solitary confinement, Jeremy Lee Wolin on the immigration station Angel Island, and myself on the reintegration of formerly incarcerated adolescents, began the workshop with lighting talks. Amy Mielke and Kurtis Tanaka opened another perspective on spaces of confinement by presenting their project, co-led by Ennead Lab and Ithaka S+R, on the rethinking of educational spaces in prisons.

This conference brought perspectives from history, law, architecture, design, and the lived experience of individuals into one space. Crossing disciplinary boundaries, this dialogue showed the wide nature of the architecture of confinement. As different kinds of architecture have taken shape throughout history, these built environments have always relied on a construct of ideas. Spaces of confinement have materialized ideas and ideologies of individuals and collectives. The architecture of confinement was and is never neutral, ever tied to the history of ideas, as this conference’s cross-disciplinary exchange drew out. This emerging platform shall continue to open new perspectives on the effects and features of the architecture of confinement. We hope to undertake new projects, like the organization of an association, annual conference meetings incorporating themes, such as family, geography, food, and immigration, and building digital platforms to foster further communication. As the conference sessions and the workshop discussions promised, the dialogue between formerly incarcerated people, designers, architects, artists, and scholars will last. A gathering of voices that breaks with the structural strategies of the architecture of confinement and its confining spaces.  

Victoria Bergbauer is a PhD Candidate in History at Princeton University. Her dissertation traces the fate of incarcerated adolescent boys and girls and their life beyond prison in nineteenth-century Europe. Studying French and European history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, her interests focus on the relationship between disease, criminality, and architecture. In April 2022, Victoria co-organized the Architecture of Confinement Conference alongside Professor Basile Baudez that hosted survivors, activists, scholars, architects, designers, and artists at Princeton University.

Edited by Nick Barone

Featured Image: Princeton University, Architecture of Confinement poster.