A Kinder, Gentler Prison in Austria

The latest issue of The New York Times Magazine looks at a novel prison in Leoben, Austria (slideshow here). Designed by Josef Hohensinn, the...

The latest issue of TheNew York Times Magazinelooks at a novel prison in Leoben, Austria (slideshow here). Designed by Josef Hohensinn, the prison aims to provide "maximum security outside; maximum freedom inside."The convicts live "in units called pods-groups of 15 one-person cells with floor-to-ceiling windows, private lavatories and a common space that includes a small kitchen." They have balconies, a gymnasium, a basketball court and ping-pong table, and rooms for conjugal visits.The prison opened in 2004 and previous coverage on the web has focused on the (scandalous!) comparative luxury of the place. Plenty of comments on this 2007 post from the blog Gizmodo raise the concern that a prison like Leoben must certainly encourage crime. It remains to be seen whether that's the case in Austria. I, for one, would still choose freedom over a nice ping-pong table in prison.

What's most interesting about Leoben, though, is that it questions what we're trying to accomplish by locking people up in the first place. Are we trying to heal people or hurt them? What if treating convicts with dignity is a better way to reform them than brutalizing them?Hohensinn actually goes a step further. When asked whether he'd rethink his design for the Leoben prison if it were demonstrated that it did, in fact, encourage crime, he says no: "The prisoners' dignity is all I really care about."That's a more radical view than most people are ready to adopt. Cost and public safety are also pretty important considerations. But in America we'd do well to figure out what it is we do care about when it comes to the design and function of our prisons.Thanks, Ryan.