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What design elements at Karnes facility tell us about the state of immigrant detention

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

The cheery facade of the new Karnes County Civil Detention Center.



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No guard towers, no barbed wire, no road with armed checkpoints. The new Karnes County Civil Detention Center doesn't look much like a prison from the outside. Instead of gun emplacements, the top of its blue facade features decorative square holes that let the sky shine through. One is reminded of urban shopping malls and high schools by the vaguely Scandinavian design and an allusion to daylight, transparency. Glass doors open into an entry way; passing through the metal detector was much like gaining entrance into any government building, a courthouse, perhaps. The similarity is not accidental, for this new holding facility is not meant to be a prison, exactly, but the finest emanation of Justice Architecture. Recognized by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as a new practice, JA attempts to break away from the old traditions of crime and punishment with new, problem-specific designs for facilities that range from urban courthouses to drug treatment centers. Is the new ICE facility in Karnes a design success? Let's look inside and see.

The check-in room with its rectangular waist-high counter evokes another comparison — that of a hospital. Airport-style chairs line the waiting area instead of cold, hard prison benches. Small, locking rooms with large glass windows line the walls. Glass appears like a motif, as do framed prints of paintings, like those by Georgia O'Keefe. The spacious dining hall, its linoleum floors marked by colorful pinwheels, summon memories of wood parquet, or the shiny halls of suburban mega-schools. The theme shifts to summer camp with two large interior courtyards housing volleyball and basketball courts, along with an AstroTurf soccer field. The quad dorm areas are named after trees — Cedar Hall, Oak Hall, merging the summery and more autumnal thoughts of school. A private college, perhaps. These rooms are the inner linings of the perimeter wall, a double-decker version of rooms that lined the ramparts of the Spanish Missions along the San Antonio River. Think of this as an extension of the River Reach. The Center is sited halfway down the river from SA to Goliad, near the old Camino Real.

Struggling to find a new model, a host of civil architecture approaches have been cited; that public schools make the list is likely more attributable to the increasingly prison-like design of schools, than by attempts of the GEO Group, builders of the facility, to make this a learning center.

As the U.S. continues to put more of its people in confinement than any other country in the world, a pause to consider what incarceration is, and is not, is warranted. Before liberal reforms of the early 19th century in Britain and the U.S. led to the beginnings of attempts to "correct" behavior within prison confinement, other remedies besides incarceration were meted out to law-breakers. Punishment included monetary fines — often an attempt to make restitution for losses — while other coercive measures held by the state included corporal punishment (flogging and execution), indentureship (or slavery), and banishment. The last figured prominently in the history of the Americas, when after being kicked out of Iceland, the troublesome Eric the Red found his way to Greenland. His son Leif reached the shores of North America, which he named Vinland.

Jailing has always been prohibitively expensive. With the exception of work camps (which provide an income by the inmates' forced labor), incarceration has historically been used to either remove political opponents from public view, or as coercion to extract either political concessions from prisoner's allies or money. Texas history would be quite different if General Antonio López de Santa Anna had not been made prisoner by Texan rebels at the Battle of San Jacinto.

The new Karnes center not only mixes architectural models, it confuses separate modes of state punishment, as well. That ICE pretends that it exists outside the history of crime and punishment, does not improve the matter. •

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