The Built Environment and Carcerality

Mi mama no tin plaka                            My mother doesn’t have any money
Hinka mi den un doshi                          Put me in a box
Manda mi na Hulanda                           (And) sent me to the Netherlands
Ora mi a yega Hulanda                          When I arrived in the Netherlands


An old Curaçaoan children’s song

Michael Dingake writes in his autobiography My Fight Against Apartheid that “Blacks are always in one prison or another. They cannot escape imprisonment for one moment.” For black people, to paraphrase Assata Shakur, the built environment is not that much different from the prison. Although Dingake and Shakur describe how prison mechanisms structure black life in South Africa and the U.S. respectively, what they put forward is nevertheless deeply reflective of black living conditions in Rotterdam and the Netherlands as a whole. This resonance across geographical locations is not surprising: anti-black violence is built into the structures and institutions that make up the modern world. The socio-political reality of anti-blackness is that black people “are policed all the time, and everywhere.”

The police and military are, as Fanon points out, instrumental in the forcible institution and maintenance of carceral geographies. Police stations and barracks sustained the dividing line—the colour line—that structured the distribution and mobility of people and capital in the colonial city. Even though Fanon writes specifically about how the police serves as monitor and patrol of the frontiers in colonial society, we should not consider this function of the police as confined to the “distant past,” or “remote” colonial urban spaces. Within the Netherlands, the police and municipally-appointed stadsmariniers for “Antilleans” (city marines, individuals with “a wide remit in order to ‘make policies happen’ on the ground”) are key agents in maintaining the colonized status of black people. In the next series of blog posts, I want to shed light on the many ways in which the built environment, neoliberal urban restructuring programmes, and urban surveillance practices work together to create prison-like living conditions for black people in the Netherlands.

In 1996, as part of the Major Cities Policy programme, the Rotterdam police opened a post, which was open from 9 am till 10 pm, within De Notenkraker, the primary school my siblings and I went to. De Notenkraker had the dubious honour of being the first school in the country with an on-site police post. This school-based police office was part of larger social experiments (conducted under the heading Hoogvliet Plus) to “improve the quality of life” in the neighbourhood Oudeland. Other efforts included diversifying of the housing stock by building spacious, higher-value family homes in run-down parts of Hoogvliet Noord so as to “prevent ghettoization.”

Notenkraker 1996 Politiepost 2
A local resident helps a police officer carry the Hoogvliet Plus sign into the police post. Source ANP:


Police officer H. Rouw said in an interview that a school-based police post enabled police officers to work closely with teachers and community members; it was “an effective way [for the police] to strengthen ties with the area and develop better relationships with the youth,” and monitor “the safety of both the school and the area.” The aim of this project was to turn De Notenkraker into a brede school, a “community school,” where besides education all kind of community-centred activities could take place, such as “information meetings,” a “sports day,” or a “block party.” Community schools are, as the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science puts it, “networks of education, welfare and care for children and their parents. The network consists of a school and other facilities (welfare institutions, culture, sport, and for example the police), aiming to stimulate children to actively participate in society, to offer children a daily routine, to deal with possible arrears, and to enforce social competencies.” To this end, the sub-municipal district centralized socio-cultural services in the school building which then essentially doubled as a community centre where various services could be provided for local residents, while its playground took on the function of a neighbourhood square. The “community school” was a prime means through which surveillance and discipline could be intensified.

Needless to say, not all parents were equally enthusiastic about this new development. The installation of a police post within the school not only heightened routine surveillance of everyday activities in “our” neighbourhood, it also increased possibilities of police harassment, which influenced how we navigated and inhabited the neighbourhood—the use of community policing practices shaped to a large extent what it meant for us to be in public space. We tried in our own little ways to negotiate surveillance; we would, for instance, let each other know where stop-and-searches were taking place.

Notenkraker 1996 Politiepost
Two primary school pupils (coicidentally one of them is my brother) and their teacher present the police officers with a plant. Source ANP:

Growing up in Rotterdam—an urban environment that felt, and still feels, like an open air prison—made me think about spaces of incarceration that are virtually indistinguishable from everyday living environments. How have architectural practices, urban policy, and policing practices created prison-like structures that aren’t recognized as such? How does theorizing society as a carceral space change our understanding of “the prison”? These questions are especially pressing in light of “designing out crime” projects, “defensive architecture,” “intervention teams,” and “safety house,” that is “a network environment for coordinating social care and criminal justice interventions in the realm of crime and security,” which collectively try to modify behaviour through their regulatory capacities.

Dominique Moran tells us that “the ‘carceral’ is something more than merely the spaces in which individuals are confined—rather, […] the ‘carceral’ is a social and psychological construction relevant both within and outside physical spaces of incarceration.” How are, then, carceral spaces outside physical spaces of incarceration designed? What are the constituent elements of such spaces? Here, I want to trouble dominant modes of theorizing carcerality that sidestep the significance of (anti-)blackness in the construction of modern carceral mechanisms. I focus briefly on Genevieve LeBaron and Adrienne Roberts’s generative essay Toward a Feminist Political Economy of Capitalism and Carcerality, in which they conceive of capitalist carcerality as,

“the various ways in which people’s current and future life choices and possibilities are being locked into hierarchical and unfree capitalist social relations and, further, the ways in which the social and physical mobility of certain sectors of the population are being constrained through these relations.”

Following Pauline Lipman, they argue that the crisis of neoliberal capitalist projects post-9/11 inaugurated “a strategic shift from the politics of hegemony toward coercion as a form of rule” which allows them to conclude that “carceral relations have become increasingly important.” Even though LeBaron and Roberts rehearse the significance of race, they fail to think the centrality of blackness to capitalist carcerality. As David Lionel Smith remarks, “race matters, but blackness matters in more detailed ways.” Saidiya Hartman rigorously argued in Scenes of Subjectionthe tragic continuities in antebellum and postbellum constitutions of blackness,” that is “the functional continuum linking contemporary mass incarceration to past regimes of racial domination such as slavery,” The matrix of violence that positions and enmeshes black life cannot be adequately accounted for within “the politics of hegemony.” The capture, coercion, and exploitation of black people within the matrix of carcerality pre-dates any recent “currents of coercion, constraint, and unfreedom as they relate to, and indeed often underpin, the spread and normalization of capitalism.” The map might have been redrawn post-9/11, but the territory has remained the same.

The problem black people face is “one of complete captivity from birth to death, and coercion as the starting point of our interaction with the State and with ordinary white citizens.” [emphasis in original] For that reason, indicators such as “increasingly” and “strategic shift” that signal an intensification of surveillance post-9/11 and a calculated change lose their meaning when read alongside Dingake, Shakur, and Fanon. From a black(ened) perspective, carcerality is not simply an organizing logic that operates “through spaces of social control outside of prison itself and through the uneven development of cities and their regions.” It is not, as Frank Wilderson writes, “a Black experience but a condition of “Black life”,” that “remains constant, paradigmatically, despite changes in its “performance” over time—slave ship, Middle Passage, Slave estate, Jim Crow, the ghetto or prison industrial complex.” [emphases added]

Moreover, Joy James tells us that “the definitional norms for democratic citizenship [have been established] through racially fashioned captivity.” Anti-black carceral mechanisms and violence are therefore necessary features through which Western liberal democracy safeguards its integrity. Put differently, the carceral continuum is “democracy at work.”

In an interview with Charles H. Rowell, Astrid Roemer says she became a writer because she “hate[s] the way [Dutch] society is structured; it seems there is no way out for black people, and this is my way to build a world I would like to live in. So my novels are just like music—they give comfort to blacks and to others who are not part of the status quo.” Last year, after receiving the P.C. Hooft award, Roemer was asked why she dedicated the award to writers Bea Vianen (1935), Edgar Cairo (1948-2000) and Anil Ramdas (1958-2012). Her response, which I quote it here at length, has stayed with me:

“When I came to the Netherlands in the sixties, Bea Vianen was publishing her wonderful novels, which appeared in beautiful editions by Querido. She later became psychotic. The stories that were told about her in Surinamese circles were awful. Not much later, something similar happened with Edgar Cairo. He drowned in his work. Whether that was because of his being a writer, or private affairs I do not know. But he, too, became psychotic. He never recovered. Later, I met Anil Ramdas, a very gifted essayist. In the beginning, you could see his boundless positivity, but over time he became more and more disappointed until he committed suicide. The last time I saw him, in Suriname, he was terribly gaunt. What happened to those people cannot only be because of their personalities. It also must have been their habitat.” [my translation]

Roemer is right to suspect the habitat—the social, political, institutional, and affective structures that shape our lives. Her indictment of the habitat not only asks us to consider the limitations of a society that was not built to accommodate and support black life, but also forces us to think about the influence of the built environment on our mental health. She speculates that the causes of psychosis should not be sought only within the individual, but also within society; by so doing, she unsettles the idea that psychosis is strictly an individual problem.

Several studies have shown that there is a correlation between mental illness and the built environment. The incidence of schizophrenia among people of colour depends, according to a 2007 study, greatly on the social environment. People of colour who live in mixed neighbourhoods are more likely to develop schizophrenia than people of colour who live in “black neighbourhoods.” When the percentage of people of their own ethnic group decreases, the incidence of schizophrenia increases. We are seven times more likely to develop schizophrenia than white Dutch people.

This habitat makes us ill. This habitat is killing us.

Photo School
Welcome in the Proveniers district. A welcome sign displaying the code of conduct. Top row from left to right: Do as you would be done by. We speak Dutch. We take care of our environment. Bottom row from left to right: We greet each other. We listen to each other. A deal is a deal.


However, it is important to complicate the interpretation of diagnostic criteria. Psychiatric diagnoses have often been used to pathologize the behaviour and minds of black people (see: dysaesthesia aethiopica and drapetomania). Froukje Bos writes in Institutional Racism and the Epidemic of Compulsory Admission in Psychiatry and Prisons that,

“within the mental health and justice system, there seems to be an unconscious double standard: the same behaviour that is labelled “criminal” for people of colour will be labelled “sick” for white Dutch people. People of colour are more often perceived as “dangerous” than white Dutch people even when they display identical symptoms.”

White behavioural experts often characterize black people as aggressive, irresponsible, or having a defective conscience for the same behaviour that is labelled more benignly for white people. Moreover, white people regularly subject black people to gaslighting, “a form of emotional manipulation in which the gaslighter tries (consciously or not) to induce in [her] the sense that her reactions, perceptions, memories and/or beliefs are not just mistaken, but utterly without grounds—paradigmatically, so unfounded as to qualify as crazy.” Institutional structures,  such as the medical-industrial complex, are authoritative forces that shape understandings of black people’s minds and invite the occurrence of mental distress through the violence they enact and the norms they enforce.


Emotional manipulation and the built environment are some of the defining features of what Susan Leigh Star calls “the politics of reality maintaining.” The built environment, Iain Butterworth writes, establishes

“the setting by which we live our lives, and impacts on our senses, our emotions, participation in physical activity and community life, our sense of community, and general well-being. Meanings are generated by buildings and spaces, which we “read” as we pass through them. Places are created and shaped by those in control of resources and with certain interests, which affects our degree of access to, and the way we use, those spaces.”

Here, I would like to consider several questions Star poses: “in whose interest is it to maintain the consensus reality? If we are ‘prisoners’, who is guarding the prison and what means of coercion are used to keep us there?” Or, to put it differently, who shapes, materially and ideologically, our environment? Traditionally, it has been the role of architects, legislators, and planners to “order the world” and thus control the production and use of space; the designers and planners, to return to Fanon, of police stations and barracks. Architects, legislators, and urban planners play therefore a crucial and often unacknowledged role in shaping emerging and becoming patterns of relations.

Urban sociologist Robert Park argued that the design of the built environment has always been driven by a desire to transform not only our living conditions, but also ourselves. Park understood the urban environment as

“man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.”

Park’s gendered language shows, perhaps unintentionally, that the process of creating “our” environment is not “gender neutral.” Both architecture and urban planning constitute and mediate a specific mode of being-in-the-world through the production of spatial order, that is, as Leonie Sandercock notes, “profoundly patriarchal.” Meaning, “an arrangement of space in which the domination of men over women [is] written into the architecture, urban design, and form of the city.” The spaces and structures that make up the built environment have generally been designed from the point of view of propertied, able-bodied, neurotypical, heterosexual, working, white male architects, planners, and developers, who do not perform (unpaid) care work. The built environment is planned and regulated to accommodate their daily lives, needs, interests, and activities at the disadvantage of other urban dwellers.

The built environment is, then, more than just a collection of buildings: it is a series of translations of white supremacist capitalist ableist cis/heteropatriarchal assumptions about living, working, and being. Put differently, it is one of the primary means through which white supremacist capitalist ableist cis/heteropatriarchy expresses and communicates its ideas, values, and beliefs by prescribing social, economic, and political relationships between people and the environment. Architecture and urban planning are thus integral structures of the ideological processes through which oppressive relations are mediated and cemented.

Architectural historian and philosopher John Hendrix insightfully described architecture as the spatial and structural manifestation of the psyche, or collective mind, of a culture. What does Dutch architecture then tell us about this culture’s desires and fears?

Historically, architecture has been an instrumental practice through which the state and other institutions have exercised control over black life. Perhaps, no other discipline has been so decisive in structuring black life as architecture. It has given form to variegated systems of oppression and control: the slave ship, the auction block, the prison, the school, civil society. What’s more, racial discourse has been integral in shaping modern architectural theories, from Johann Winckelmann’s idealization of Greek buildings and “assumptions on the ideal form and color of human beauty” that made “the issue of whiteness versus color more than simply a question of taste,” and Adolf Loos’s association of ornament with “primitive” peoples, to Le Corbusier’s longing for the era in which the world was “white, limpid, joyous, clean, clear.” Architecture is one of the many ways how “anti-black fantasies attain objective value in the political and economic life of society and in the psychic life of culture as well.” Any social justice critique of society should encompass architectural analyses.

Architecture as a place-making activity subtends the inherent space-making capacity of the law. Through my research on liveability, I have come to think of law in terms of design. I have been focusing specifically on how legal architecture, that is an architecture of ordinances and legal constraints—think of anti-loitering ordinances, banning orders, anti-begging regulations—and spatial design structure relations between power, persons, and property and the material conditions in which black people live and that make “living” possible. For instance, “deviant behaviour” is deterred not only through legal architecture, but also through defensive architecture. Defensive architecture, or unpleasant design, “defends” the general public against “undesirable behaviour” by other members of the public through psychological and sensuous manipulation of public space: think of metal spikes on ledges to deter “errant” sitting and/or lying down, curved benches, or “pig’s ears”—metal flanges added to the corner edges of pavements to prevent skateboarding.

Old-school bum-free device, Bristol, UK via Dismal Garden:

The main purpose of unpleasant design is to design idle, surplus people out of space. To put it differently, to design a space is essentially to design people’s “lawful” behaviour in that space. Michael Weinstein argues that coercion should for this reason be understood “in terms of controlling spaces rather than in terms of controlling actions.” What does it mean psychologically for targeted individuals when their being in “public space” is considered a “nuisance”?

Often when we talk about violence we don’t think about the coercive capacities of architecture, or how violence is enacted through architectural practices. If we take Weinstein seriously, then architecture is certainly not inert. Professor of Architecture and the Built Environment Flora Samuel seems to attest to this. Samuel tells us that architecture is “more process than product.” She and others posit in Of Architecture in Homes and Neighbourhoods that architecture performs “actions” that “transform the way we feel and think.” Architecture can thus positively or negatively affect “resident’s feelings about the value of their place in the world.” For instance, bland and poor architecture, common characteristics of social housing, creates, as Jay Pitter notes, “spatial shame.”

We should think about the kind of people we have become, or are coerced to become, through contemporary architectural design, legislation, and urban planning. If what Park has argued is true that by changing our environments, we remake ourselves, then the reverse must also be true: by changing ourselves, we remake our environments. The crucial question is thus not so much about the built environment, but about us. What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of social relationships do we wish to establish? What kind of relations to the earth, to plant and non-human animal life do we wish to set up? How do we want to feel in this world? How do we want to live in this world?