On Tuesday, the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities, along with the Residential College and various other University departments, hosted a panel discussing the relationship between crime and the environment.

The panel, titled “Humanities & Environments Faculty Panel: ‘Criminal Justice and the Built Environment’,” hosted three University professors of various disciplines to explore their perspectives on the environment around us and how physical and social structures contribute to the criminal justice system.

The event began with opening remarks from each panelist about their respective definitions of the “built environment” and the role it plays in policing and the current criminal justice system.

David Thacher, associate professor of public policy and urban planning, explained the role of shared spaces in propagating ineffective tools of policing, such as stop and frisk laws, specifically in minority communities.

“One consequence of urbanization is that people bump up against each other a lot more than they did in less urban environments,” Thacher said. “We create shared environments. We also have to create rules that regulate how we’re going to share them. Then we have to create tools to enforce those rules.”

He also addressed the relationship between urban development and the increased policing of personal vices since the early 19th century.

“In the Western mining towns where the first drug laws took shape … upwards of two-thirds of the population was born outside the United States,” Thacher said. “They were exposed to the influence of people with dramatically different habits and vices. And perhaps more important, their kids were exposed to these different lifestyles.”

He continued by explaining the expansion of police oversight.

“That was the moment, more than anything, when in the United States we expanded the police power to cover a seemingly self-regarding vice like drug use,” Thacher said. “It was also the moment where we radically transformed the nature of policing practice and criminal procedure by embracing the idea that the police and the courts have some responsibility to regulate what happens in the private sphere.”

Heather Ann Thompson, professor of in the Afroamerican and African Studies Department and Pulitzer prize winner, then introduced her position on the role of the “built environment” in the criminal justice system. Though she echoed some of Thacher’s sentiments, she explained her viewpoint through the lens of modern-day prisons.

“The ‘built environment’ is the world we all walk in and the world we all create … and part of that built environment is creating spaces where people live, but it’s also where people are punished, and adjudicated and everything else,” she said.

Thompson then delved deeper into the notion the cement construction and isolated location of prisons promote apathy among the public regarding the wrong-doings that may take place inside.  

“We are never going to fully move the needle on our criminal justice system anywhere substantive until we ask the fundamental question about prisons and their intentionality,” Thompson said. “What is it that they are supposed to do and can they be humane as they are constructed the way they currently are?”

She pondered how a change in the form of prisons could alter the perception of the incarcerated, proposing how the example of jailing someone in a translucent cube in the Diag would change one’s views of that person. She argues the difference in visibility of the prison structure changes the attention it receives.

“The ‘built environment’ in terms of punishment is always thought about as an internal problem, not a problem of the broader society and what we have allowed to let happen precisely because that environment is a closed environment,” she said.

Thompson also explained several contrasting components between our modern-day prisons and prisons of medieval times, which were located in city centers and even allowed whole families to live together within the prison.

“The medieval prison was in the middle of town, right in the center, sentences were incredibly short because they served a direct and immediate purpose … but the entire community surrounding the prison had a stake in what was happening inside of it,” she said.

Claire Zimmerman, associate professor of architecture and history of art, then discussed a new class she has developed based on the architecture of prisons and a project she is working on that will showcase a “digital catalogue of carceral architecture.” She also argued that it is a space’s use rather than the space itself that makes it carceral.

“The class focuses on a comparative project looking at this analogy that is often made between prisons and monasteries,” she said. “My starting assumption was that we used to model prisons on hospitals and monasteries and now we model them on warehouses and storage units, and this is the problem. But of course, this turns out not to be the case. It turns out that prisons, from the minute that they’re invented, are very much machines that are processing human beings and industrializing their labor.”

The panel then segued into a Q&A, in which many of the questions focused on the lack of transparency of prisons and the potential changes that could result from making prisons more present in everyday life.

“It doesn’t matter where they are as long as they are opaque,” Thompson said. “The Wayne County Jail is a hellhole and so is Cook County Jail and those are right in the city centers. So it isn’t just the location. It is the fact that they are impenetrable. You can’t get in even to see your loved ones.”

Public Policy graduate student Aloka Narayanan explained her motivation for coming was her interest in architecture and its role in the current prison system.

“I have a general interest in criminal justice and I wanted to see how architecture and urban planning play into violence in the prison system, as well as how we police within the prisons,” she said.

Narayanan expressed her surprise regarding some of the panelists’ answers, particularly those about transparency due to the punitive nature of the United States justice system.

“I was really struck by transparency and the idea that moving a prison to a place that is more transparent will make the activities there seem more egregious, because I think the whole point of a prison in the United States context tends to be punitive, so when we look at it from a punitive angle, we expect them to be punished and living in inhumane conditions, so how will we change all of that if we make it more transparent?” she said.

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