Earlier this year, Jeff La Noue authored a blog post supporting the idea that moving Baltimore City’s prison complex would improve the area’s aesthetics and thus promote development in adjacent neighborhoods. La Noue stated “City Marketing 101 says you shouldn’t put your jail as the welcome mat to your downtown or your top research hospital.” Makes sense. He then proposes moving it to Jessup, “home to several other prisons,” and located well beyond Baltimore’s 695 Beltway. Let’s think about this.
Many existing articles and literature consider crime and how it impacts the true goals of urban planning:
- Crime can alienate a city and inhibit tourism, investment, and social cohesion, especially in marginalized communities.
- Crime is more likely the result of sprawled development and increased mobility that alienate people from communities, rather than a result of dense populations in city centers.
- Crime can be reduced through “passive surveillance” and the environmental design of densely populated, mixed-use areas where people feel connected to their communities.
Crime creates the need for undesirable land uses such as prison complexes, and this particular prison is a physical manifestation of the stigma created by Baltimore’s notoriety as a crime-heavy city. Does removing the prison get rid of the real problem of crime? Existing conversations about moving Baltimore City's prison complex seem focused on placing the prison and the issue of crime out of sight and out of mind. In the image below, the prison complex is visible from the popular Mt. Vernon neighborhood.
La Noue referenced New York City’s Rikers Island, a prison separated from the city it serves. His comparison to New York City is one relying on the common assumption that NYC is faring better than Baltimore in terms of crime and poverty. In response to a similar sentiment created by a New York Times article, Next American City points out the issue of confusing visibility with the actual existence of crime and poverty. Diana Lind concluded “New York and D.C. just hide their inequality better.” Is hidden inequality what Baltimore should strive to achieve?
I disagree with the reasons and motivations behind suggesting that the prison be moved. By putting development opportunities first and crime prevention second, serious potential impacts of moving the prison are missed:
- Increasing the time and cost of transporting prisoners,
- Further alienating prisoners by adding distance from their families and support systems, and
- Separating the prison from ancillary services such as court houses and legal counsel.
Alternatively, the move could provide an opportunity to create an entirely new facility, far removed or not, that is built to serve a greater purpose beyond holding and punishing criminals. San Francisco’s County Jail No. 5 participated in a restorative justice workshop for inmates to learn about architecture and how to design better prison facilities - “the goal was to make the needs of victims central, and by doing so affect the broader healing for all, communities included.” The move is a good idea if the existing facility cannot be renovated to better serve crime prevention; how the land is developed after the move should be a secondary concern. I would therefore edit La Noue's proposition - if investing: design a prison to serve crime prevention from the before, during, and after stages of a prison sentence.
Do you think the physical location and design of prisons can better serve crime prevention and other urban planning goals?
Credits: Images by Jade Clayton. Data linked to sources.