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How aesthetics affect public policy

The news reports out of Benton County, Arkansas, where the Crystal Bridges museum of American art is slated to open in 2009, are a fascinating snapshot of city planning. The idea of the museum has completely changed how residents of Bentonville and its neighboring cities perceive themselves and how they want to be perceived. For example, take yesterday’s meeting of the Justices of the Peace: there had been proposal to purchase a hospital in downtown Rogers and transform it into a juvenile detention facility. A quick survey tells me that, like so many other areas of the U.S., the justice system in Arkansas is broken, no less so for juveniles. “As many as 20 percent of first-offenders in state youth services are committed by juvenile judges for misdemeanors,” says this report. One upshot of that kind of incarceration rate is overcrowded prisons, the solution to which (obviously) is to create more or bigger prisons. Enter Crystal Bridges. At the Justices of the Peace meeting, the plan to buy the hospital was scuttled not because the justices believed they could solve the prison crisis another way, but because the thought of having prisoners be visible in downtown Rogers was unattractive. As Justice Debbie Hobbs put it, “It’s a beautiful square down there and with Crystal Bridges coming, I’m thinking we don’t need inmates lined up on the sidewalks.” Arkansas cities are no strangers to prisoners on the town square (and if I could fire up my old computer, I’d insert a photo, which my father took several years ago, of stripe-shirted prisoners sweeping streets around the White County courthouse). Embarrassment about prisoners in Rogers appears to be a projection of a new self-image inspired by an interpretation of what it means to be a community with an art museum, which local citizens are already internalizing. That the self-image happens to mirror other trends in U.S. treatment of prisoners—that is, hide them—is a convenient side effect.



Prisoners really are visible in Searcy. They were always around town doing work when I was there. I wonder if it’s an Arkansas thing. In Alabama the only times I ever saw prisoners were on the highways picking up trash.

Thinking about it more, it may be a racial thing. Inmates in Arkansas are, like the rest of Arkansas, mostly white. In the dirty south inmates are overwhelmingly black. The idea of having large gangs of negro criminals doing work about town is really quite scandalous.

I think it depends on the kind of facility. The inmates you’d see on the square in White County were from the county jail, usually there for less than a year on various misdemeanor or small-time felony charges. I very much doubt Arkansas lets its state prisoners (who I am 98.9% certain are overwhelmingly black) onto courthouse lawns.

Yeah, I used to work at that jail. It’s mostly meth addicts and/or wife beaters, etc.

Also, state courthouses throughout the South, and the rest of the US, I suppose, enjoy the fiscally sound use of inmates for janitorial and other maintenance issues. This typically is not forced but is a privilege for non-violent misdemeanor cons. If I were inside, I think I’d enjoy the chance to sweep the steps.

Montgomery is building a massive new county jail across the street from the courthouse, where it really needs to be, but also across the street from the junior high and in the midst of some significant urban renewal and investment. It’s a crying shame.