The World’s Prisons, As Seen Through Their Architecture

The photographer Jan Banning visited 25 penitentiaries in four countries for his new book, Law & Order.

The Dutch photographer Jan Banning spent years trying to get into prisons all over the world, ultimately bringing his camera inside correctional facilities in four different countries–Colombia, Uganda, France, and the United States–in order to expose their guts. His new book, Law & Order, is a compendium of his documentarian photographs, data visualizations, and Banning’s own thoughts on jurisprudence. Banning’s camera focuses on inmates, guards, and administrators, but also the architecture of imprisonment, capturing the infrastructure of these self-contained worlds. They are an intimate portrait of an arm of the government, and its architecture, many citizens will never see.


Banning, an internationally renowned photographer, is drawn to the impact of sociopolitical events on normal people. For example, he has captured the Indonesian women who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese army during World War II, and the men and women forced into labor in South East Asia during the same era. But he’s also interested in institutions and their keepers: one of his previous books, Bureaucratics, is a series of portraits of civil servants in eight different countries (currently on display at Duderstadt Gallery in Michigan). Likewise, Law & Order also focuses on courts and police, two other institutions which are connected to the carceral system.

France, Maison d’arrêt Bois d’Arcy.

It took Banning up to five years to gain access to the prisons he visited for the book. Uganda’s were the easiest to enter, with Banning given approval to enter and photograph 10 of them, including maximum security prisons. The United States, France, and Colombia forced Banning to jump through greater bureaucratic hoops, and in most cases required a personal introduction to a high-ranking government official to gain access. The four countries were chosen with help from the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law in Germany, which also provided the written legal expertise and infographics of murder and imprisonment statistics. Together, they represent a spectrum of legal systems, murder rate, and economic development.

The photos highlight striking contrasts between the countries. Take the shared spaces documented in the book: in France, two men are captured sunbathing in a brightly colored enclosure. If it weren’t for the high walls and surveillance cameras, they could be tanners catching a few rays before the weather turns. The American call room is a stark contrast, with cinder block walls and stark benches arranged around two black payphones. In Colombia, a recreation yard is covered in colorful laundry. With a soccer net on one side, it looks like it could be a children’s playground. One Ugandan prison’s communal space is full of men dressed in bright yellow uniforms, the walls of their enclosure barely visible amidst the hubbub.

Colombia, Bogota.

The aspect of prison architecture most people are more familiar with–their facades–are also documented. La Modelo Prison in Bogota, Colombia has a stark facade with the curves of Spanish-style tile acting as a surreptitious decorative element along the top of the wall. From the outside, Maison d’arrêt de Bois-d’Arcy in France almost looks like a factory, with two smoke stack-like towers just behind its imposing front doors. The Jinja Main Prison in Uganda is menacingly solid, with bars covering its few windows. The flags for the United States and the state of Georgia fly over the crisp, administrative white of the Georgia State Prison, the penitentiary’s uniform architecture echoing the institutionalized, bureaucratic nature of the American prison industrial complex.

In an essay at the end of Law & Order, Banning writes that his research and experiences have led him to believe that many countries’ focus on punishment as the reason for incarceration has meant that it is harder for inmates to become better people. We’re left with the question that drove Banning’s research and documentation: “Is locking people up in prison the best way to tackle crime?”

Law & Order is available for purchase on Amazon.


[All Photos: Jan Banning]


About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.