Going to school is criminal: Why are schools and prisons built so similarly?

Amanda Geraci, Contributing Writer

Most people have probably seen that 2014-15 Instagram-esque comparison describing the resemblance of schools to prisons in the United States, listing things such as dress code, loss of individual freedom, focus on silence and so on.

While that is all true and relevant to another important conversation, there is one thing I have noticed that never appears on the images containing these comparison lists: the eerily similar architecture of the buildings.

In my Prisons and Jails course at Quinnipiac University this semester, we briefly touched on the concept that schools are designed similarly to prisons, observing an image as a class and having to guess what type of building it was.

The entire class believed the building was a prison, just to find out it was an elementary school. I was shocked and left class with many lingering thoughts. I needed answers or at least an explanation.

I decided to take to the internet to see if there was any research done on this. I had mainly hoped to find a link between the architecture and how that may subconsciously affect students, or if there are any similarities in behavior between students who attend school and offenders being housed in prison. Honestly, I would be satisfied seeing this topic being discussed at all.

Having never heard anyone discuss this topic before or seen any related news pieces, I was surprised to find a couple of articles covering the similarities in school and prison architecture. There were Reddit forums questioning why this is the case,what this is doing to our students and why it is important to start building schools that do not resemble correctional facilities.

Unfortunately none of these sources are those that would be considered minorly reputable — all either Reddit forums or hole-in-the-wall independent sites with no credibility. While it is great to see some people acknowledging this, it needs to be discussed on a much greater scale. Why hasn’t this topic made it to mainstream media coverage yet?

Aside from the exterior architecture of the two buildings, some of the most striking parallels in design are the long hallways with doors leading into rooms that you typically cannot access without permission, the presence of courtyards enclosed by the walls of the building, bright fluorescent lighting and the layout of the cafeterias as a whole.

It is easy to see some of the same behaviors being displayed in both of these environments; the simplest example being cafeteria fights. The cafeteria monitors serve the same role as a corrections officer would, monitoring the room and breaking up said fights, while those observing either join in or sit back and observe.

Students are often told by their teachers, administrators and guardians that school is supposed to be a safe space, yet for most, it is a place that is filled with anxiety and stress. In its simplest form, students go to school to learn and come out with new knowledge.

Now applying the same principles, offenders go into prison to serve time and come out with the learned intention to change the direction of their life. Yet in both of these scenarios, those initial purposes can become secondary to fighting, cliques, drama and an overarching feeling of negativity.

We can see that these buildings are clearly ineffective at achieving their original goals, so why keep constructing them the way we always have?

The formula that was used to build prisons and schools is scarily similar. Were they perhaps designed by some of the same people? This factor is brought up in an article from ArchDaily, covering the concept that design similarities may be the result of the same architect. Yet after scouring this article, there are no details covering who these builders are, just a discussion about how long the similarities between these buildings have existed and how school architecture differs between the United States and other countries such as Finland.

As a criminal justice major, it is immensely frustrating to see the lack of discussion and conversation about this issue via larger scale sources.

Considering the fact that school is universally understood as a place that should provide a nurturing environment and prison is a place that people attend as a form of punishment, they should not be this similar.

It is crucial that we begin to recognize the issue at hand and break the cycle. This needs to be done before the behaviors we are already seeing in these strikingly similar facilities start to manifest themselves into a larger problem.