Exploring the Metropolitan Correctional Center: the Leniency and Harshness in Confinement
Author: Xinyi Zhao
Program of Study: Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS)
The Metropolitan Correctional Center, located at 71 W Van Buren Street in the Downtown neighborhood, is a United States federal prison in Chicago. There are 28 floors within this building, accommodating perpetrators prior and during court proceedings and or those who serve brief sentences. Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), designed by architect Harry Weese, takes advantage of Weese’s favourite plan geometry, a right triangle. The designer indicates a special taste for art in designing this building: using a triangular frame instead of square, floor-to-ceiling slit window instead of square window, and a rooftop exercise yard instead of a playground on the ground floor (The picture below shows the structure of the building) . It is these features that differentiate this building from other federal correctional facilities.
After virtually visiting this architecture, a question flowed into my mind: what is the purpose of all these unique features? I suppose the answer is to find a balance between harshness and leniency. In fact, Chicago has a long history of harsh punishment. It was not until 1832, when the early image of jail structure was constituted, did the jails and prisons punishments came into being. Before 1832, public flogging, the pillory, short-term custody and capital punishment were the mostly used punishment methods. Almost a century later, the decade from 1960 to 1970 witnessed a boom in building correctional facilities, after which the MCC was constructed in 1976 . To sum up, the correctional service in Chicago has changed from a simple penal system to a well-developed correctional program and the concept of restoration and rehabilitation has come into existence. The following paragraphs will illustrate the harsh and lenient punishment in MCC located in the Downtown neighborhood.
Integrating leniency into the criminal justice system
It has been a trend that severe and harsh treatment in the criminal justice system is more common than leniency. For that matter, MCC has been equipped with an exercise yard on the rooftop, and a recreation center in the basement, which provides access to fitness equipment, board games. Besides, prisoners are also provided with law libraries and prison jobs. However, the females gained no access to leisure and law libraries, but they were allowed to use these facilities since 2005 .
On the other hand, it seems that over the long haul, leniency is and will be hard to accomplish. Piper Kerman, the author of Orange is the New Black, once was sentenced to MCC . She accused the miserable lives of inmates and the “often pleasant, if unprofessional” prison guards. Collins elaborates on “forward panic” to imply that the police might resort to violence toward offenders, which means the police tend to become engrossed in a rhythm of repetitive, temporarily uncontrolled attack on a helpless victim . When the offenders are put into prison, the police occupy a completely decisive role compared with their criminal counterparts. Under this circumstance, the isolated prisoners can be prone to some strict treatment.
On the contrary, this stunning and striking design of the building is an evident representation of harsh punishment. To commence with, the inmates, deprived of freedom, are supervised strictly in this building. Compared with the square shape of other confinement facilities, the triangular shape made it easier for the guards to have a clear sight over prisoners. Besides, the narrowed windows are arranged innovatively to funnel natural light inside, at the same time preventing escape from windows . All these unique features of this building have formed an astringent and severe environment for prisoners, where every prisoner is carefully allocated, each of their behaviors are rigorously supervised, and each attempt of escaping is strictly prohibited.
Furthermore, it is the location of the Metropolitan Correctional Center that constitutes an authoritative and hardhearted impression to the public. MCC is situated in the Downtown neighborhood, the heart of Chicago. Producer Dan Weissman , working in the neighborhood, noted that the triangular shape keeps the building pushed back from the street, which makes MCC uncanny. Apart from that, there’s a tall hedge between the sidewalk and the plaza in front of the jail, and the El train blocks much of the view of the floors above (a picture indicating this location is attached below). All these features are bound to shape a distinctive, and at the same time, awe-stricken impresion to the public.
This special combination of harshness and leniency creates a special atmosphere in the neighborhood, which roughly consists of the passersby, people working nearby, the inmates and the guards. As for commuters who pass by, the cold concrete, narrowed windows and the triangle will undoubtedly impress them. As they approach the building, they find it hard to see this 28-floor skyscraper from up close. A complex awe-stricken feeling, mixed with a sense of mystery, impresses all the passersby. This feeling furtherly formed the respect towards the federal criminal justice system, and serves probably as a deterrence effect unintentionally. For that matter, MCC functions inexplicably in disciplining the public.
On the other hand, the inmates are inclined to a different feeling about this neighborhood. Being quarantined inside the prison, they are only allowed to gain some window views. In fact, they are suffering from harsh punishment inside, at the same time seeing the outside, splendid, and stunning skyscrapers in the heart of this city. What is worse, those who serve decade-long sentences have to witness the development of this commercial area. I am not sure how they feel seeing this, but I suppose it would be powerless and frustrating.
It can be concluded that while leniency is integrated into the confinement, harsh punishment has always constituted an essential element in the Metropolitan Correctional Center. The virtual visit also led me to think about how this place will be like in the future. In fact, constructing another jail in the Downtown area is quite impossible. This is because land prices, compared to the 1976 prices when MCC was built, would be extremely high. Thus, the construction would be extremely costly. For that reason, MCC might be preserved for its discipline functions and special construction features. I personally hope that the building will be refined to offer better living conditions for insiders, and employ more leniency during the replanning. On the other hand, given the rise in land prices, another assumption is that MCC will be converted to a complete new commercial building while the prisoners will be sent to other prisons in Chicago. Nevertheless, no matter what happens, MCC is and will be playing an indispensable role in the Downtown neighborhood.
 Baldwin, Ian. “The Architecture of Harry WEESE: Chicago Modernist.” Places Journal, May 1, 2011. https://placesjournal.org/article/the-architecture-of-harry-weese/?cn-reloaded=1.
 Jails and prisons. Accessed August 15, 2021. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/661.html.
 Kieköwer, Daniel, Pawel T, and Ryan Hildebrand. “Emporis.” EMPORIS. Accessed August 15, 2021. https://www.emporis.com/buildings/117135/metropolitan-correctional-center-chicago-il-usa.
 Kerman, Piper. Orange is the New Black. 2010; ISBN 978-0-385-53026-2. Location 4467 (Chapter 18: It Can Always Get Worse).
 Collins, Randall. Forward panic and violent atrocities. 2011; Emotions, crime and justice, 23-36.
 “The MCC: Chicago’s Jailhouse Skyscraper.” 99% Invisible, January 1, 1970. https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/episode-26-the-mcc-chicagos-jailhouse/.
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