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This essay reflects on the paradox that invests common perceptions of prison interiors by presenting a formal investigation of the nineteenth century prison of Buoncammino in Italy.
While we unanimously refuse as abominable the pre-modern dark dungeon, we are also very ambivalent towards the (unrealised) promises of the carefully designed enlightened and ‘enlightening’ spaces of the modern prison, which in principle we consider superior but that, ultimately, we end up perceiving in a not too dissimilar way from the pre-modern imaginary of darkness. Is this survival of darkness inside modern institutions, born in the age of the Enlightenment, a sign of failure for the hopes embedded in the modern prison? Or does it derive from the imperfect implementation of the model modern prison in reality? Or, alternatively, was darkness already embedded in modernity itself? The apparently irresolvable paradox of the coexistence of ‘dark space’ in ‘light space’ relates to the dichotomic nature of contemporary debates on penal institutions: whether to humanise or abolish them.
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