In August 2021, I moved into a small house about a mile south of the University of Iowa, and shortly thereafter began a daily bike commute from home to school and back again. I’m always interested in the million choices that go into the design of a place, and how this built environment affects our lived experiences of being here — and affects different communities differently. I’m interested in ways human constructions orient towards or away from groups of people, encourage or suppress certain relationships and actions — in other words, how values are built into building. There’s a very special and fleeting period when you’re still unfamiliar with a place and learning how to move within its alien landscape that you can be especially sensitive to how it feels, at least on your own body at that time.
It was toward the end of this period of newness, when perception is heightened but not to say refined or precise, that I realized one of the very nondescript late-70s red brick buildings I passed by twice a day, in a zone I thought was already university campus, was actually the county jail. It really struck me that it had not struck me. It struck me that it did not want to be noticed, to be legible. When I started mentioning it to new colleagues and friends, I found it had gone largely unseen (or unknown) by many. It doesn’t feel like an accident.
This has led me down a path of researching carceral architecture and design, in thinking about how we share space with carceral structures. What do centers of detention want the non-detained public to know about them? What do they want to signal, what do they want to hide? What omissions are built into their buildings? How has this changed, and what does this tell us about the very purpose of incarceration? I find myself especially considering how this architecture of illegibility at the Johnson County Jail feels linked to an unquestioning acceptance of the prison system at large. It is hard to interrogate what you can’t see. The Johnson County Jail feels worthy of this investigation both because it happens to be the neighborhood site of detention for all of us at the university, and because it is not particularly exceptional.
I’m approaching this research as a filmmaker, which for me means to prioritize the experiential (sensory, corporeal) as a way of knowing. I’m interested in what close-looking, slow-looking, new-looking can emanate, especially from structures that seem to ask us to not look at all. While I began this project by looking directly at the jail with a camera and collecting new footage, increasingly I am incorporating visual archival records (with thanks to the University of Iowa digital collections, the State Historical Society, and Johnson County) as a way of questioning the apparent unchanging permanence of carceral structures.
I have a few threads I’m puzzling out: So far, I have been exploring outsider-ness to the building, but what about the experience of being inside? What decisions are made about the interior layout, how does this live out on the bodies of inmates and staff? Could I tour the jail, conduct interviews, get sound recordings? Secondly, I have been contending with the website of the jail an aspect of its public-facing structure, where with little effort anyone can view the faces of the people being held within the jail at that very moment. It is a jarring bit of visuality that feels invasive and dehumanizing, but simultaneously viscerally reminds one that people are living inside that nondescript building. Racial and gender inequalities are made readily apparent. Is there a way to address what these photos reveal without perpetuating their violence? Finally, I have been approaching this project as a linear video, but I have begun to question if there might be other ways to share time-based work that make it further public and accessible.