As part of the national project The States of Incarceration, Professor Sarah Lopez of the University of Texas’s School of Architecture opened their exhibition with a simple question: How does architecture shape punishment? Lopez and her class were the only participants from twenty universities investigating incarceration from an architectural perspective. And so they began as any architecture study would, with an investigation of the space itself to understand the layout, the functionality, and the quality of the materials used. But this was not an ordinary typology. They were wading into a highly charged political issue, one that has rallied millions of Americans to keep out undocumented immigrants.
Immigration is an easy topic to debate in the abstract, but much more difficult to navigate when confronting a face, a name, and a personal story. The exhibition, Texas: Spatial Stories of Migration and Detention, begins with a thorough analysis of for-profit prisons—privately held institutions that are contracted by the government to detain criminals. The more detainees brought in, the more beds they have to provide and the more money they make in the end. In the post-9/11 security environment, immigrant detainees increased significantly, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requiring a minimum of 34,000 detention beds nationally at any given time. A timeline stretched across the opening display is overlaid with small gray rectangles depicting beds filling the board in stacks, like high-rises, growing as you move closer to the present. Milestones also flank the timeline, marking the major policies enacted with each set of legislation, followed by a surge in lobbying expenditures, bed counts, and ultimately construction of new detention facilities. The students, limited in their capacity to investigate these facilities firsthand due to an industry shrouded in secrecy, used figure ground drawings to investigate the buildings in lieu of the more common architectural representations of floor plan, elevations, and sections. Professor Lopez explained how her class encountered wall after wall in pursuing this exhibition. Phone calls were not returned, e-mails were left unanswered, and visits to the facility were highly restricted.
Out of the thirty-three facilities operating in Texas, the class was granted a visit to only one, the La Salle County Detention Center, just over 100 miles south of San Antonio. They were granted access because the facility was undergoing renovations. The result of the visit was a 3D virtual model uploaded on a tablet, the model stitched together using the class’s sketches and some help from Google Earth. This unique combination of documentation was a result of the restrictions imposed on the students during their visit: no photos or measuring tapes, just sketching. The precision of the 3D model represented the massing of the La Salle complex, but the sketches by the students could only tell a partial story. It wasn’t until I saw the next part of the exhibit that I got a more complete and human picture.
In the middle of the exhibition space was a large path diagram laid out on the floor that depicted the many steps necessary to immigrate into the United States. It reminded me of a dance step diagram with paths moving from side to side, front to back, and circling around major steps. Two starting points were shown: legal and illegal immigration into the United States. The last step was a judge granting legal asylum into the United States. Regardless of where you started, detention seemed to be an unavoidable step in this dance. A map of Texas showing the locations of all the detention centers hung near the floor diagram, a reminder of how large Texas is and how isolated most of the centers are from major cities. One of Professor Lopez’s students, Katie Slusher, joined me on my visit and described the legal resources available to those detained in or near a major city versus those in isolation. The logic is simple: most immigration lawyers live in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, or Austin, so it is challenging for them to commute to facilities located hundreds of miles away, making it difficult for thousands of detainees to receive timely legal counsel.
In lieu of the meticulously drawn sketches done by the students were doodles and cognitive maps made by current and past inmates. The lack of architectural training was evident. In fact, the absence of straight lines helped paint the clearest picture of how architecture shapes punishment. A series of drawings done by a nine-year-old girl named Génesis showed her experience migrating from El Salvador to the United States. One of her drawings, “Prefiero estar en mi casa / I would rather be at my house,” shows the things she misses the most from her home in El Salvador: her favorite place to play, her toys, and her family living together in a safe place. The narrative next to her drawings explains why Génesis and her family immigrated to the United States. A local gang threatened to do harm to her and her family if they did not pay a $10,000 ransom. In another story, a television plays an interview between Professor Lopez and Abrham, an asylum seeker from Ethiopia. The camera is fixed on a large sheet of paper where you watch as Abrham maps in detail his incredible journey. Dates are scribbled next to miles walked and payments made to various traffickers and officials.
As part of the national tour of The States of Incarceration, a series of panels created by each of the twenty universities make up the remainder of the exhibition. Led by the New School’s Humanities Action Lab, each panel summarized how the university approached the subject. Questions such as “Why are prisons the nation’s mental hospitals?”, “Who is the death penalty for?”, and “Are prisons for punishment or rehabilitation?” help shed light on the complexity of incarceration and how deeply rooted incarceration is in the history of the United States. The amount of information can be overwhelming, but the success of the exhibition lies in its ability to provide a glimpse into the national dialogue and how each state is affected by the industry of incarceration.
How to Cite this Article: Goujon, David A. “Access Denied,” review of Texas: Spatial Stories of Migration and Detention, organized by Casa Marianella. Mebane Gallery, University of Texas, Austin School of Architecture, Austin, TX, October 5 – 21, 2016. JAE Online. March 3, 2017. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/access-denied/.