Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago (1975) Harry Weese & Associates /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

If the title of the post hadn't tipped you off, what would you have guessed was housed in this structure? One of those phone company switching station centers, or perhaps a data bank filled with millions of miles of cable and humming main frames? Well, as the headline reveals, this is a prison, owned and operated by the federal government, and sitting in downtown Chicago.

  [Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago, 71 W. Van Buren Street, Chicago /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Designed by architect Harry Weese and associates, the federal holding center and jail was at the forefront of a marriage of architecture and prison reform when it was built in 1975. The triangular structure ushered in a new generation of thinking about how to hold and house a prison population. The design helped usher in a new penal program called direct supervision. Instead of the usual long corridors lined with cells (linear surveillance) or even the pod system of remote surveillance, direct surveillance called for a large floor span containing an open central common room surrounded by prison cells at the perimeter. The cell walls facing into the common room were thick yet transparent, and one prison guard could supervise the small number of prisoners who were housed on each floor. All paintable surfaces were covered in neutral colors rather than standard issue battleship gray, and the common area was carpeted. If you ever happened to catch an episode of the HBO series Oz, the set in that television program gives you an fairly good idea of what Weese's design. Each cell had one of those narrow 5 foot high by 3 inch wide slits so prominently carved into the exterior, providing natural light for each cell, yet small enough to prevent escape.
This new concept was an attempt at cutting down on prison violence, providing better rehabilitation through more humane conditions, with easier and more effective oversight by staff. The move was controversial, not only because people felt that this was just a way to coddle prisoners, but in this particular instance, the building was to be built at the entryway to a re-emerging South Loop neighborhood. The area, from Van Buren to Polk Street, was just coming out of the doldrums after 40 years of neglect and abandonment, and staging a comeback.
In the intervening decades, the neighborhood transformed itself from rather sad and   forlorn to hip and desirable, while the correctional center simply became a familiar community landmark. Although the windows proved to be good sources of light, it didn't stop two enterprising inmates from using smuggled hacksaws and barbells from the exercise room, to break out in 1985. They were subsequently captured, and bars were added to the windows. And for the un-incarcerated, the tower became famous, or perhaps infamous, for its rooftop rec area where pedestrians strolling along the sidewalk could look up and see  prisoners through the fenced-in roof deck's long, narrow openings, recreationing.

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