PRINT December 1995

Mike Davis


For those of us in the neo-Luddite resistance to the Information Millennium, the most reassuring development in 1995 was the outbreak of the FIRST COMPUTER SUPERVIRUS. The plague, which appeared at the beginning of September, infected unprecedented numbers of PCs throughout Europe and North America when users attempted to read documents created by Microsoft’s popular Word program. Although deliberately benign, the Word virus contained an ominous but inert macro entitled “payload.” It was an exemplary philosophical warning. Indeed, experts worry that future epidemics, more malevolent in nature, could spread through the vulnerable orifices of E-mail with the lethal efficiency of Ebola fever. The Net may be mortal after all.


The most sinister architectural event of the last year was the opening of the federal super-maximum-security prison—ADMINISTRATIVE MAXIMUM FACILITY—in Florence, Colorado. This “Alcatraz of the Rockies” is home to Japanese Red Army terrorist Yu Kikimura and may become the future residence of such celebrities as Mafia don John Gotti and Chicago gang-leader Jeff Fort.

Florence’s Sadean blueprint, plagiarizing the most inhumane features of California’s notorious Pelican Bay facility, is explicitly intended to maximize sensory deprivation and spatial disorientation. Seven layers of three-inch-thick steel doors and 1,400 electronic gates control movement within the 562-bed labyrinth. The tiny cells, with their stark concrete furniture, are ingeniously angled so that inmates cannot communicate with or see one another. Window slits are designed to allow a glimpse of the sky but no view of the surrounding mountains.

The “more dangerous” inmates are confined to their cells 23 hours a day with the bleak consolation of a small black and white television set. They are allowed one hour of solitary “recreation” in a concrete room equipped with a chin-up bar. The most incorrigible convicts, however, are “buried alive” (without television) in an awesome “hole,” where automated services virtually eliminate physical contact with others.

The austere, hypersecure “Roboprison” is, of course, an idea whose time has come. State prison systems are avidly joining the fray. Michigan, for example, has its dread IMAX facility, Arizona boasts its new “Pelican Bay of the Desert” (Security Management Unit), and Oklahoma has buried an entire maximum-security complex underground. Even Jeremy Bentham, the 19th-century father of the panoptical penitentiary, would be horrified by the iceberglike solitude of the new American prisons.

Mike Davis is author of City of Quartz. He is currently at work on a new book about Los Angeles.