A new book by Susana Draper, assistant professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, uses the phenomenon of the “opening” of prisons to begin a dialogue on conceptualizations of democracy and freedom in post-dictatorship Latin America. Focusing on the Southern Cone nations of Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina, she examines key works in architecture, film and literature to reveal the veiled continuity of dictatorial power structures in ensuing consumer cultures.
For carceral geographers, her book has particular appeal for its discussion of Punta Carretas prison, in Montevideo, opened in 1910 as the exemplar of model prison architecture in Uruguay, and copied from the 1898 Fresnes prison in France. Designed in the ‘telephone pole’ style, its aim was to rehabilitate individuals through humanitarian punishment, and its opening, which coincided with the abolition of the death penalty, was characteristic of the Uruguayan state’s modernization plans.
However, by the 1930s Punta Carretas was holding political prisoners, becoming by the 1970s Uruguay’s most important centre of confinement for politicals, until a mass escape in 1971 saw the prison nearly emptied, and the remaining prisoners moved to the new military Libertad Penitentiary. Post-1970s, the prison held mainstream prisoners, and eventually it was slated for closure, a decision initially triggered by rising local property values, but then delayed by the recognition that Punta Carretas was a national site of cultural heritage, which should be preserved. However, the cost of the preservation of the building proved too high for the then post-dictatorship state, and a decision was taken to preserve the building, but to put it to commercial use.
The prison was converted into a shopping mall in 1994, as part of a larger process which Draper describes as a means to ‘envision the country of the future – that is, the country of consumer services’ (Draper 2012, 23). In converting the prison, a conscious effort was made to selectively demolish and preserve certain features, in an effort to “preserve the spirit of the prison, but in a way in which this ‘preservation’ would not be an obstacle to developing its new function” (architect Estela Porada, cited in Draper 2012, 48). Draper draws particular attention to this notion of the ‘spirit’ of the prison, suggesting that the spirit is connected to ‘leaving behind the prison in architectural form without bringing forth the painful, past spectres of this site’ (ibid 49).
Discussing the actual space of the prison-mall, Draper describes the preserved relics of the prison – the facade, the gateway through which prisoners were previously led to their cells, the walkways on former prison landings, and the former cells which now contain shops, food courts and entertainment complexes. She particularly focuses on the tensions in the building between the inside and outside of the mall, specific relics of the prison which appear disconnected from the mall itself, and the effect of the disguised and fetishised remnants of the prison within the colourful mall.
For carceral geographers, Draper’s book, which also analyses the literary afterlives of Punta Carretas (writings on the prison itself and its transformation) offers an intriguing reading of this site, weaving together ideas of spirits and spectres, idioms and residues, evocation and translation, and the relationship between the unique and the universal. Read alongside other work on the conversion of prison sites, emerging from geography and from tourism and heritage studies, this work offers a highly nuanced and contextualised reading of Punta Carretas and its transformation, embedded within a wider set of transformations of the Uruguayan state.
Draper, S (2012) Afterlives of Confinement: Spatial Transitions in Postdictatorship Latin America, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, USA.