America’s prison catastrophe: Can we undo it?
The US prison system continues to fail, so why does it still exist?
Prisons in America, specifically, are some of the biggest, most dysfunctional businesses.
For an advanced society, the conditions in our prisons are quite appalling.
And the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it.
People who have made mistakes should be deserving of a second chance.
The impact that incarceration has on reducing the crime rate is quite marginal.
There are many better, cost-effective ways to reduce crime, and we haven't done them.
This prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis.
MARIE GOTTSCHALK: The United States is the world's leading warden. It has more people incarcerated in prison and jail, as in absolute numbers, and as a proportion of the population, than any other country in the world. So it incarcerates about 700 per 100,000 people in prison or jail. This is about five to 12 times the rate of other Western countries and Japan. We've got about 160,000 people who are serving life sentences in the United States now, and a number of them who are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, in some cases, equals the entire prison populations of other large countries.
In my state alone of Pennsylvania, we're spending as much just to send somebody, keep someone in a state prison, as to send them to college, at some of the leading colleges or universities in the state for the year. There's a political issue about the legitimacy of the political system that locks up so many people, and disproportionately locks up so many people of color, and so many people who are poor. So often when we talk about prisons and jails, we talk about the numbers, how many people are in prison, or how many people in jail. What we overlook is that we have some of the most degrading, dehumanizing prisons and jails in any developed country.
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: For an advanced society, the conditions in our prisons are quite appalling. Going to an American prison increases your chance of getting HIV AIDS. Going to an American prison increases your chance of getting tuberculosis. Going to an American prison increases your chance of being raped, whether you're a man or a woman, and increases your chances of being raped either by prison staff or by other prisoners, and so on. I mean, it's just appalling what goes on in our prisons. I think it's completely uncontroversial that these things are appalling, you are not sentenced to AIDS, you are not sentenced to rape, you are sentenced to incarceration.
DAMIEN ECHOLS: The hardest parts of being in prison, the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it. You know, there were times when I was beaten so bad that I started to piss blood. You know, they're not gonna spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing, so it's not like you're gonna see a real doctor or a real dentist. You know there's, at one point I've been hit in the face so many times by prison guards that it had caused a lot of nerve damage in my teeth. So I was in horrendous pain. Your choices are live in pain, or let him pull your teeth out. I didn't want them to pull my teeth out. So I had to find techniques that would allow me to cope with the physical pain.
SHAKA SENGHOR: When I think about my journey through, in prison, I went through some very adverse experiences. I had some significant obstacles to overcome, including, you know, longterm solitary confinement, which they estimate is designed to drive a person crazy after 90 days. And what I found in that environment is that people figure out ways to cope and to, survive when they're forced to do so.
LIZA JESSIE PETERSON: The 13th amendment in the constitution, in the United States Constitution, it says that slavery is illegal. So we can't have slavery anymore, except for punishment of a crime. So everybody get your constitution out, look up the 13th amendment, and you see the clause that says except for punishment of a crime. So if you are committed- if you are convicted of a crime, then you're exempt from that 13th amendment saying that slavery, you know, is abolished. So that means that you're allowed to work as a slave. Slave labor, slave wages.
So you have people working for 10 cent an hour, 11 cent an hour, who are, you know, doing agriculture, working for huge corporations. You know, I don't want to name them because there's so many, but you know, a lot of the goods and services that we take for granted. Clothing lines, computer parts, airplane parts, military equipment, food that we buy, organically grown. These things are being manufactured in prisons, in prison farms, in prison factories, by inmates.
SENGHOR: Prisons in America specifically, are some of the biggest, most dysfunctional businesses we have in our society. When I was in prison, I worked for 17 cents an hour. That was my starting rate working in the kitchen. But there's also big corporations who invest in prison labor, because they can get this labor for $1.50 an hour, and then the sad part about it is that, in turn, they don't even hire these men and women when they're actually released from prison.
GOTTSCHALK: We have many people, not only do they serve their time, but once they leave, it's still as if they have an F, felon, as sort of the scarlet letter for the rest of their lives, because they've served their time, but they're not allowed to vote, they're not allowed to get welfare benefits, they can't get food stamps, they may not be able to get student loans, they may not be allowed to live in certain places, and they may not be able- permitted to get licenses for certain jobs, even jobs like hairstylist, which many people learn in prison. They learn how to be barbers and then they come out, they can't get licensed because they have a- a criminal conviction, and face extreme discrimination.
SENGHOR: I walked out of prison with a lot of optimism, despite being told by the officers that I will probably be back in six months. And when I walked out, I thought that I was returning to a society that would be a lot more forgiving, and a lot more open to me getting a second chance if I was willing to follow the rules of society. So, get out, look for a job, you know, prove that I want to work, volunteer in my community, you know, figure out ways to add value. And sadly and unfortunately, society is not really forgiving, and not really as open to second chances as I thought they will be. And it's really sad in the sense that 90% of people who are incarcerated will at some point return home. And we have a choice in how we welcome men and women back to our community.
I personally believe that there's not a human being that isn't without flaws, that hasn't had a bad moment. And nobody will want to be held hostage to that moment for the rest of their life. Once a person has served their time, that means that they should come out with a clean slate and an opportunity to start over. And if we want them to have a successful transition, it means we have to be willing to give them a true second chance, and not keep bringing up the past, unless they're, you know, repeating that behavior. But in most cases, most people want to just get out, move on with their life, find employment, find a safe place to live, and be free to enjoy the fullness of life.
JOHNNY C TAYLOR JR: :I'm a taxpayer, and anything that we can do to reduce recidivism, keep people off the rolls as an expense, a government expense and a prison, and as taxpayers, is a positive. So there's that part of me. You know, we have 7.3 million open jobs, and only 6 million people currently looking for jobs, which means we have a talent shortage. And if we could do anything to eliminate that talent shortage, that's 1.3 million people roughly. Every year, some 700,000 or so people are released from jails and prisons in America. So just taking a— we can use some of that population, that 700,000 person population to make a dent in that 1.3 million person deficit. So it's just practically smart.
And then the third part of me, which is more humanitarian-based, is people who have made mistakes should be deserving of a second chance. It is just, I mean, because all of us have made mistakes, some have been caught, some haven't, but these people have presumably paid their debt to society. And you know, if the idea is I make a mistake at 25 years old, I go to jail for five years, or prison for five years, and then I get out. What do I have to look forward to, if forever, I'm going to wear the scarlet letter, you know, convict to see, that says I'll never get another opportunity? Life is over there.
The Holy Grail of this would be if we could identify people who are six months, a year away from release, and begin giving them transitional skills. You know, work skills, life skills. Think about this. I was just meeting with someone who's been incarcerated for 25 years, the cellphone as we know it didn't exist then. So when they come out, they're gonna have to get adjusted to all of that the world has literally transformed in 25 years. So in an ideal state, we'll begin helping them transition back into a world that sort of they pushed the pause button two and a half decades ago. And we've got to catch them up pretty quickly so that they acclimate, and don't recidivate. That's number one. But once we do get them out, the most important thing we can do is get them back to work—housing and work. And they're sort of inextricably intertwined, you know, but housing is critical. And we've got to find places for people to have a permanent place. Mind you, they've had housing for some significant period of time, and on the outside, absent that there's an instability that makes them more vulnerable, and then you've got to pay for that housing, which is where the job comes in.
We employers have to reach out to this population, and let all of our biases go away. And we really do have to overcome our own biases. You know, we talk about implicit bias, unconscious bias, people think, "Oh, that's just in the context of race and gender." Well, the fact of the matter is we have a lot of biases, one of which is a bias that we have against the formerly incarcerated. And maybe it's because of television, and everything that we see in movies, and the characterizations of people who are in jail, but all of that comes through whether we're conscious of it or not, when we are talking to someone who we know has been incarcerated. We have some interesting research that says roughly 80% of HR managers say, "I'm interested and would be willing to hire the formerly incarcerated." Cherm's research says there's no bias at that level. Where we get into the bias and have had it, and seen it historically, was customers and other employees. Those are the biggies. You know, there's this NIMBY concept which says, "Yeah, I like the idea of hiring a formerly incarcerated, but not to sit next to my daughter at work." So, "Not in my backyard." That's the NIMBY concept. And so, we've had to work on that. Fortunately, we have some new research that says employees themselves, as a result of this narrative changing, and we're re positioning the formerly incarcerated, have said, "I'm okay." Three quarters of employees have said, "I'm okay with you bringing people into the workplace for nonviolent crimes."
Similarly, about three quarters of customers have said, "For nonviolent crimes, I'm willing to buy from a company that openly hires the formerly incarcerated, a product or a service." They're willing to do that. Those were two major hurdles in the past. And what we're seeing is, as a result of us changing the narrative, these are not bad people, they're people who made mistakes, and that every one of us has made them, and is e- entitled to a second chance, we're changing the narrative around hiring formerly incarcerated.
GOTTSCHALK: The public, and my students, this often happens, right? The logical thing is we lock up more people, we should reduce the crime rate, because there are fewer people who are out on the street to commit crimes. What we have found, myself as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Incarceration, we studied the best data. And in fact, the impact that incarceration has on reducing the crime rate is quite marginal. And the more people you incarcerate, the even less of an impact it has on reducing the crime rate, and it actually may increase the crime rate because people who serve time in jail, the conditions in jail and prison may actually make people more criminogenic. And also, you destabilize many communities by taking so many young people at the prime of their lives out of those communities.
So one of the first things the public has to realize is locking more people up doesn't necessarily increase the safety of their communities, and it actually may decrease the safety of the communities, and that a better solution is to not lock people up in the first place. Now, does that mean that it's a perfect world where no one will go out and ever commit a heinous crime? No, that- there's always that possibility, but we can never promise everybody a perfect world. If we wanted a perfect world, we would lock everybody up. And we're not going to do that, but this is not a risk that is a huge risk that we shouldn't be taking for many of the people, and if you talk to many wardens or superintendents of prisons, you talk to them informally off the record, they say they can go through their prison, and probably identify 30 or 40% of the people who really don't need to be there.
ROBERT PERKINSON: What needs to happen is we need to have, as a central goal, not just trying to make conditions of confinement more humane or help people who are released from prison—there's like 750,000 people a year who get out of prison, they're tossed out on the street with stigma, without money, angrier and more alienated than they were before. They didn't get much treatment behind bars. So there's a lot of emphasis on reentry right now, as well there should be. But in my view, there really has to be an emphasis on reduction of this out of control, bloated government bureaucracy that is causing, and it's unlike other types of government waste.
I mean, if we have a contract to build a highway and it gets double billed, or air marshals, take air marshals, for example, which it seems like now that the evidence is in has been a totally useless government program. They haven't committed any crime. There's been an average of four arrests a year. But it's relatively benign. People get jobs, no one really is harmed by it, and maybe there's a little bit of public safety. So it's more or less- it's wasteful. It's irresponsible use of taxpayer money, but it's not harming anyone. Prison is very different. It actually is- most people think that it is responsible maybe for 10 to 20% of reducing crime in the United States. There are many better, cost-effective ways to reduce crime, and we haven't done them, and we need to start kind of changing direction. There are signs that's happening, and there needs to be changes at every level of the system. We need better indigent defense, we need fairer trials, we need a shift in our approach to addiction, toward thinking about it as a medical problem entwined with, crime and poverty problem rather than as a solely criminal justice issue. We need to think about better ways to let more people out of prison, especially as they pass beyond their criminal prime.
GOTTSCHALK: People age out of crime. So that the most criminogenic years, as I tell my students, is often the late teens and the early 20s. So locking somebody up for 30-40 years for a crime that someone's done in their 20s doesn't socially, morally, financially make a whole lot of sense. What we also know is that someone who's committed a serious crime has been released, eight- usually eight years after they've been released, their profile, the likelihood that they will commit another crime is the same as someone who's never committed a crime before.
PETERSON: I think that we're at the precipice of another great shift in society, where you have a small group of people who say this prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis. Something needs to be done. You have a large swath of people who say, "Oh, they're just criminals. This is, we have to have prisons, right?" But I have faith in that small voice of people who believe in humanity becoming louder, and louder, and louder.
- The United States is the world's largest prison warden. As of June 2020, America had the highest prisoner rate, with 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. But according to experts, doing something the most doesn't mean doing it the best.
- The system is a failure both economically and in terms of the way inmates are treated, with many equating it to legal slavery. American prisons en masse are expensive, brutal, and ineffective, so why aren't we trying better alternatives? And what exactly are these overstuffed facilities accomplishing?
- Damien Echols and Shaka Senghor share first-hand accounts of life both in and after prison, while political science professor Marie Gottschalk, activist Liza Jessie Peterson, historian Robert Perkinson, and others speak to the ways that America's treatment of its citizens could and should improve. "The prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis," says Peterson. "Something needs to be done."
- How Prison Sets Inmates Up for Failure | Shaka Senghor - Big Think ›
- The 13th Amendment: The unjust prison to profit pipeline - Big Think ›
- Should Philosophy Be Taught To Prisoners? - Big Think ›
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The author of 'How We Read' Now explains.
During the pandemic, many college professors abandoned assignments from printed textbooks and turned instead to digital texts or multimedia coursework.
As a professor of linguistics, I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
The answers to both questions are often “no," as I discuss in my book “How We Read Now," released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
Print versus digital reading
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks – like identifying the main idea in a reading passage – to ones that require mental abstraction – such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details – like “What was the color of the actor's hair?" – and remembering where in a story events occurred – “Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?"
Studies show that both grade school students and college students assume they'll get higher scores on a comprehension test if they have done the reading digitally. And yet, they actually score higher when they have read the material in print before being tested.
Educators need to be aware that the method used for standardized testing can affect results. Studies of Norwegian tenth graders and U.S. third through eighth graders report higher scores when standardized tests were administered using paper. In the U.S. study, the negative effects of digital testing were strongest among students with low reading achievement scores, English language learners and special education students.
My own research and that of colleagues approached the question differently. Rather than having students read and take a test, we asked how they perceived their overall learning when they used print or digital reading materials. Both high school and college students overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.
The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper's physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they've read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.
But equally important is mental perspective, and what reading researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis." According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.
Podcasts and online video
Given increased use of flipped classrooms – where students listen to or view lecture content before coming to class – along with more publicly available podcasts and online video content, many school assignments that previously entailed reading have been replaced with listening or viewing. These substitutions have accelerated during the pandemic and move to virtual learning.
Surveying U.S. and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, University of Stavanger Professor Anne Mangen and I found that 32% of U.S. faculty were now replacing texts with video materials, and 15% reported doing so with audio. The numbers were somewhat lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40% of respondents who had changed their course requirements over the past five to 10 years reported assigning less reading today.
A primary reason for the shift to audio and video is students refusing to do assigned reading. While the problem is hardly new, a 2015 study of more than 18,000 college seniors found only 21% usually completed all their assigned course reading.
Maximizing mental focus
Researchers found similar results with university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
Results with younger students are similar, but with a twist. A study in Cyprus concluded that the relationship between listening and reading skills flips as children become more fluent readers. While second graders had better comprehension with listening, eighth graders showed better comprehension when reading.
Research on learning from video versus text echoes what we see with audio. For example, researchers in Spain found that fourth through sixth graders who read texts showed far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos. The authors suspect that students “read" the videos more superficially because they associate video with entertainment, not learning.
The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.
Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn't assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
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