In Germany, as in most European nations, prisons often lie within towns and cities; European prisons & jails are older than the housing estates and urban developments that, ultimately, came to surround them.
In Britain, castle-like Victorian-era prisons were the dominant type until the seventies when they were replaced by draft-proof, medium-sized institutions in rural locations. Bricks and mortar made way for concrete & razor wire. That said, a few town-centre “citadels” such as Preston Prison and Lancaster Castle still operate within Her Majesty’s Prison Service, the latter dating back to the 14th century!
In the American penal landscape, a high proportion of prisons (and all new builds) are outside of conurbations – sometimes isolated in the mountains or desert, sometimes just within grasp of a rural town to prop or establish a local economy.
Christiane Feser‘s photographs could not be mistaken as American, just as the New Topographics couldn’t be mistaken for anything but American. I don’t want to say Feser’s series Prisons is typically German, because I don’t know what that means. Instead, I will say it is typically Northern European. Feser’s photographs embody the spirit of pedantic spatial ordering which I have observed not only in Britain and Germany, but also Austria and the Netherlands.
We don’t know the specific locations of these prisons so we can not know the construction dates. Given the carceral/residential interplay we can say that if Feser’s images aren’t about the zoning of space, they are about a time before zoning dominated civic-planning.
“When I photographed the prisons I was interested in how these prison walls are embedded in the neighbourhoods,” said Ms. Feser via email. “How the neighbours live with the walls. There are different strategies. Its a little bit complicated for me to write about it in English …” Feser’s images do the talking.
Feser’s world is one of silence, order and manicured nature. Her images evince a harmony between the prison, its neighbours and vice-versa. We witness no trauma here.
Feser has obviously decided to omit humans from her compositions. The neighbourhoods are well tended and so presumably inhabited. One presumes the neighbourhoods are occupied daily, and yet we see no cars in driveways nor bikes on the street. Feser almost suspends belief. Are these actual places? Is this a toy-town?
Why does Feser rely on manicured topiary and brick pointing of the absent inhabitants to illustrate the “different strategies”? Is Feser suggesting a common psychology between prisoners and residents?
Have the neighbours adopted psychologies of seclusion and discipline as exist in the prison next door? Can penal strategies of control transfer by osmosis through prison walls and throughout a community? Or are certain personalities attracted to these new build estates? Are a portion of these homes reserved for prison staff? Or has Feser’s clever framing and omissions just led the viewer along these lines of inquiry?
Many would think in this peculiar carceral/residential inter-relationship the prison dominates, overbears. I doubt it. I contend those who live in such locales influence the institution also. The two agents in this relationship aren’t separate; they are drawn to one another and they overlap.
Feser uses visual devices to point toward this overlap. Angles of the oblique walls, dead ends, tended verges and brown-toned brickwork repeat through the series; sometimes these elements are part of prison fabric, sometimes part of a house.
There exists no hierarchical coda in Feser’s images as all the surfaces are equal. One has to pay attention to figure out which architecture is carceral, and which is not. Even the barbed wire doesn’t confirm it totally as (in England at least) one commonly sees barbed wire and glass shards lining the walls of merchant-yards and back alleys.
Feser’s photographs cradle a palette of grey concrete & skies; dense greens and the browns of brick & mortar. This is Germany, but it could as easily be Lancashire housing estates, Merseyside new towns or the reclaimed industrial sites of Scottish cities.
So how about it America? You are the land of the suburb and subdivision. You may not be familiar with a socio-spatial history that favours the awkward in-fill of urban and semi-urban space over the encroachment on to undeveloped land. It’s alright. Prisons needn’t be invisible and we needn’t be afraid. Locks and keys work as well on your street as they do in up-state, high-pain, back-water seclusion!
The location of prisons matters because when prisoners are sent to facilities on the other side of the state, families are likely to visit less. The commitment of time and money required to make such a lengthy trip usually precludes the poorest families from the essential and simple act of visiting a loved one. Research has shown the largest single factor in a prisoner successfully reentering society and not re-offending is the maintenance of family ties and the continued support it provides.
All images © Christiane Feser. Used with permission.