A million man-years of confinement had burnished the surface of the granite flags to a greasy smoothness ingrained deeply with filth and despair. Here was the impacted stink of human waste and pain, concentrated, hyper-distilled and stored for decades beneath the high glass roof which rose in a great vault above the triple-stacked tiers of the teeming cell block. This was where men were sent to kneel and where those who didn’t want to learned the way. Somewhere on the planet there were worse places in which to spend time. But this was the best that civilization could do.

Green River State Penitentiary had been designed by an English architect named Cornelius Clunes in an age when it had still been possible to combine philosophy, art and engineering in a single fabulous endeavour. Commissioned in 1876 by the governor of Texas, Clunes had set out to create a prison in which every brick was imbued with the notion of a power both visible and unverifiable. No dark dungeon was this. No squat, brutal box. Green River was a hymn to the disciplinary properties of light.

From a cylindrical core capped by a great glass dome, four cell blocks and two work blocks radiated away at sixty-degree intervals like spokes from the hub of a giant wheel. Beneath the dome was a central watchtower from which a spectator could enjoy a clear view down the central walkway of all four cell blocks. The block roofs were mounted on smooth granite walls and overhung the top tier of cells by twenty feet. The kingposts, tie-beams and rafters of the roof were constructed of wrought iron and covered with extravagant sheets of thick green glass. Light streamed through the glass: a permanent surveillance that induced in the cowering inmate a sense of permanent visibility, and ensured the automatic functioning of power. Looking outside from the window of his cell, the convict could see the encircling walls with their resident riflemen; from the bars of his door he saw the central observation tower with its cameras and guards. At night his cell was illuminated by a dim green bulb, and the walls and walkways by spotlights. A man entering Green River said goodbye to darkness for the duration of his stay. Darkness permitted at least the illusion of privacy and invisibility, places where a man might try to reconstruct some sense of his own individual existence. Light was discipline, darkness was freedom. Because the inmate was constantly visible he could never be sure whether he was being spied upon or not and thus became his own warder, perpetually watching himself on his jailer’s behalf. Green River was an architecture of power built upon the paranoid fantasies of the guilty.


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