Plato’s Cage

An Ontology of Policing in Three Acts

Power is the ability to define reality and have others respond to it as if it is their own. – Dr. Wade Nobles

Illustration by Blacksneakers

By Ajay Revels and Jennifer Rittner

Everything made articulates a view of the world. Everything made shapes the realities experienced by others. Art, design, language, and action—these are all the ways we make sense of and share our realities with one another. They reflect the present conditions of our lives, but are often formed in the distant past, then passed from one generation to the next, where they continue to weave the invisible threads of common beliefs and values.

At their best, our ancestors designed tools that nurtured, connected, and protected. But throughout history they also built foundations of unjust power and the inhumane treatment of others. In doing so, they shaped conceptions of who should be seen, honored, and obeyed, as well as visions of the barbaric or undeserving. Constructing tools and environments of evil often served to validate the means of violence. Then, when they no longer served popular conceptions of “civil society,” the tools of violence didn’t simply disappear. Instead, they were redesigned, made palatable, and rendered invisible by complex systems, all the while continuing to provide the justification for historic injustices manifested in new forms. Conceptions of past morality, social status, and belief form the bars of cages that frame and constrain our current injustices.

Such are the historical origins of policing and incarceration. Indeed, modern practices derive from the earliest definitions of humanhood posed by Greco-Roman ancestors who queried, “What is a person? Who has the right to self-determination? Who deserves to be free?” As we question current paradigms and practices, we would do well to unpack these origins, embracing our most radical imaginations to build futures that profoundly eschew and dismantle both the tools, and the judgments, of the past. Here are three historical designs that reflect the fundamental assumptions we hold about personhood, autonomy, freedom, punishment, and the right to self-determination. The objects presented below speak to the very core of how we define criminality and punishment. They reveal how processes of redesign have made tools of inequity more ergonomic and more socially palatable, even as they perpetuate ancient or medieval concepts that align criminality with states of oppression, and reactions to criminality as the rightful domain of the most free.

Act 1. Ancient Rome

Theme: Right to Personhood

We do not see the world as it is—we see the world as we are.
– James C. Hunter

Designing Personhood
A bronze relief of a Roman soldier and a barbarian (ca. 200 CE), on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,1 illustrates a view of ancient Roman hierarchy that reflects the beliefs of the time: in part, that one privilege of freedom was the right to hold and wield power over others. The design of this relief, showing a Roman soldier forcing a prostrate individual to the ground, instantiates the hierarchical social construct. Here, the fully uniformed soldier (a proto-police officer) enacts an assumed dominance, an obvious act of violence, over the “barbarian” who is seen as powerless, anonymous, and even shapeless at his feet and in his grasp. The relief reflects and memorializes this moment, as the virile, adult male wields the power of free personhood over his dehumanized victim.

“The world as it is…”

This ancient definition of minority, male freedom as the essence of humanhood reified a central fallacy about the rights and privileges conferred to some by accidents of birth. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in fact, articulated a concept of humanhood while searching for a liberal formula for civil society. He concluded that male freepersons represented the perfection of humanity, and were awarded the privilege of dominance over an unfree majority of women, children, and slaves.
This view necessitated the design of implements of force—swords, knives, whips, and armor—to maintain the separation of the unfree masses from the minority of free Roman men who either were soldiers or required their protection. Who was free and who was a slave was codified in Greco-Roman laws, which justified hierarchical systems based on gender, capital, and ultimately race, well into the modern age. Designations of freedom have consistently conferred upon those in power the right to participate in politics, thereby establishing the rules for society as a whole.


“…and as we are”

The division of people into free and unfree classes has additionally required the design of systems
for monitoring and controlling the unfree, either to subdue uprisings or to force labor. Between the powerful and the oppressed are those hired, uniformed, and armed to ensure that the will of the few keeps all others in line. Environments and eco-systems of control have been designed to isolate and dehumanize the unfree (via dungeons and torture chambers), as well as those that served to publicize and perform the spectacle of punishment (coliseums and cages). Each design has served its purpose: establishing a social order in which some assume freedom and control over others who are deemed less human, and therefore useful only insofar as they serve the free minority.


Act 2. Medieval Europe

Theme: Torture as Punishment

The people who make wars, the people who reduce their fellows to slavery, the people who kill and torture and tell lies in the name of their sacred causes, the really evil people in a word—these are never the publicans and the sinners. No, they’re the virtuous, respectable men, who have the finest feelings, the best brains, the noblest ideals.
– Aldous Huxley

Designing Mean Machines
Instruments of torture were thoughtfully prototyped, designed, and produced with social impact in mind to psychologically terrorize, socially humiliate, and physically torture those deemed worthy of punishment. The goal of these machines was to inflict terror and enact violence in ever newer, more innovative ways. In fact, empathy was the point, as designers and operators of these devices tapped into their own insights and observations about the suffering of others in order to optimize the success of their inventions.

The garrote was designed around 1000 CE to terrorize and torture as a legitimate form of punishment for offenses against the state. Seated on a narrow slab, the tortured individual would be held in place by a metal strap across the neck, preventing their movement as well as constricting their airway and ability to swallow. It is a slow, painful death by design, in full view of the public who could observe the tortured individual drooling and gasping for air. Thoroughly dehumanized. Thoroughly punished. Thoroughly modeling the power of design to dehumanize both the captive and the captor, as the perpetrators of this violence either gloried in the pain they inflicted or were rendered immune to it as society endorsed the action either through their acceptance or their silence.

“Virtuous, respectable men…”

In pre-modern Europe, the power to “police” citizens was held by the privileged classes who claimed
the rights of ownership, which centered power around the accumulation of property. As those with property had the means to secure protection, incursions against property could therefore be classified as a punishable offense. The dominance of an elite minority became practically ubiquitous in Europe, as feudal lords transformed the political and geographical landscape into a chessboard of feudal castles at the expense of violence to and domination of the peasants who lived in their realms. Through force of starvation, torture, or death, these peasants became unfree serfs, bound to the soil, working their own land and providing their harvests to the protected occupiers of estates.
Though the history is complex, some familiar themes emerge. As landed gentry claimed power, they also required protection. Through the means of wealth and privilege, they leveraged their power over unlanded men who, bereft of opportunity and willing to take up a good fight, were put into service as protectors of the gentry classes, and therefore protectors of property. Specialized protection corporations of knights were armed with long swords, axes, chain mail, and full-body armor fashioned by local steel smiths.


“…who kill and torture and tell lies in the name of their sacred causes.”

In the name of the state, justified by religion, in service to ideologies of freedom and justice—people in power have justified the oppression of specific populations in service of maintaining their own privilege. What we see in the instruments of torture is the professionalization of the role of torturer—the executioners of the state’s will. The state could deputize those willing to serve as arms of power, giving them the tools, incentives, and protection to detain and punish at will. The norms established during this period have informed modern and now contemporary expressions of power, privilege, and punishment—who is the owner and who is owned, who determines the rules and who must abide by them.

Even in a democratic society, the same norms can be seen. The same value structures that validated torture in the Middle Ages are applied to the design of contemporary forms of punishment, made palatable for modern sensibilities. The design of courthouse jails, which are routinely built beneath the public areas in what, at least in New York, are referred to as the tombs. In a breathless article published in The New York Times in 2011, Jim Dwyer celebrates the punishing intention in the design, saying, “A prisoner going to court from the Metropolitan Correctional Center is presented to federal marshals in the basement of the building. Shackled at the ankles, chained at the waist and cuffed at the hands, the prisoner hop-marches through a tunnel nearly 40 feet below the street.” Spaces named for the dead, designed to punish the living. Spaces designed to deaden, to create things. The dungeon, an early prison prototype, has only moderately evolved from its ancient origins. These dark, dank holding spaces are the architectural forebearers of the Portuguese, British, and French forts and dungeons that were built on the west coast of Africa, which provided the template for the prison ships and plantation breaking cells of the colonial era.


Act 3. Colonial America

Theme: The Disposable Human

The civilized have created the wretched, quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo; are responsible for their slaughter and enslavement; rain down bombs on defenseless children whenever and wherever they decide that their “vital interests” are menaced, and think nothing of torturing a man to death: these people are not to be taken seriously when they speak of the “sanctity” of human life, or the “conscience” of the civilized world.
– James Baldwin

Designing Human Capital
A starting point for understanding the centrality of design in enabling the systems of racial dominance comes to us in the form of specially refurbished vessels designed to optimize the space for human cargo, who were both highly valued and largely disposable. These floating dungeons were designed and constructed to maximize humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization, turning men and women not just into prisoners but livestock.

The captors of human cargo were almost equally impacted by design, as they were forced to embrace the barbarism of their roles as captors, slavers, and wielders of unearned power inflicted with whips, chains and branding irons. The privileges of freedom were to become enshrined in law as slavery enriched and debased European slavers, transforming evil into normal and rendering invisible the suffering of millions.

“The civilized have created the wretched.”

In the colonial era, particularly in the United States, policing and definitions of criminality have directly been tied to race and power, as Isabel Wilkerson so thoroughly outlines in her book Caste, on American caste systems through which racial classification and animus are perfectly expressed through systems of criminal (in)justice and through cultural norms.

Disposable humanity is a feature, rather than a bug, of the American system of labor. American agriculture developed almost exclusively as a result of European slavers treating enslaved laborers as the faceless tools of pro-duction. In fact, the Machiavellian thesis of settler colonialists could be defined as “the product of labor justifies its means,” a philosophy that shows up repeatedly as the disposability of humans across the landscape of American labor systems. We see it in the development of the transcontinental railroad, where managers of the Central Pacific line overworked and underpaid the tens of thousands of Chinese-born immigrants who labored six days a week in grueling conditions to build a central American infrastructure. Nameless, faceless laborers building the American Dream. We see it, as well, in educational models like the Indian boarding schools, where white Christian pedagogues stripped individuality, language, history, clothing, and even their hair, away from children in order to render them culture-less, disconnected from land, family, and ancestral knowledge. The culture itself becomes a disposable object and the children made visibly indistinguishable through uniform haircuts and clothing.

The age of the disposable human didn’t end with the abolition of the slave trade or the end of slavery. Disposability came to define our American experiment as human bodies have been perpetually claimed in service of expansion and unity. Exhausted and replaced as needed, counted and documented only insofar as it was required to track the value of their labor, our country’s migrant and
immigrant labor, low-wage workers, and service workers came to be valued more for their faceless expendability than for any notion of their individual contributions to the development of urban infrastructures, the vibrancy of our metropolitan marketplaces, the robust diversity of the cultural products that define American art and design, and that keep our farms, factories, hospitals, schools, and civil services functioning.

“The conscience of the civilized world.” Over the years, slave ships were trans-formed on land and took new forms that continued to reaffirm the disposability of Black bodies when they no longer served as sources of labor or entertainment: slave ships turned into slave cabins, cabins ultimately became housing projects, ghettos, slums; and these have transformed again into gentrified neighborhoods that welcome the white and wealthy at the expense of Black communities that continue to be treated as expendable.

The built environment often supports the primacy of the valued “haves” over the devalued “have nots.” Black bodies have been zoned away from sight whenever, wherever, and however possible, on transportation, in housing, in schools and workplaces, and as much as possible through the criminal justice system, which continues to place a premium on moving Black bodies off of the street, out of the schools and into modern-day dungeons. Just as slave labor found justification through the banalities of colonial and post-colonial systems, the convict leasing schemes that replaced them continued the practices of creating free labor, by establishing laws that would criminalize the poor and Black. Today’s prison systems, enabled by contemporary policing practices, double down on convict leasing by both charging prisoners for basic amenities (like clothing and toiletries) and utilizing their labor to pro-duce commercial products and services. The free labor pool of prisons is one of the dirtiest secrets of our free market, and it depends on the anonymity of those who comprise the workforce. It relies on a collective willingness to perceive the makers of our things as nameless, faceless tools of production, the ghosts imprisoned in the machine.

As detailed in a 2020 report by the Corporate Accountability Lab, American companies continue to perpetuate the means of human disposability, in part predicated on the productive utility of unfree bodies, and the justifications of linking punishment with a common good. Golf shirts, circuit boards, furniture, poultry processing, sports apparel, pet products, and textiles all rely on these toxic ontologies of human worth. And they rely on policing systems that, through ways that are all-too-opaque, feed those American prison labor markets by criminalizing, policing and punishing those Black, female and even child bodies labeled as most disposable.


Act Next. Stepping Out of the Cage

You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.
– Angela Davis

Designing Transformation
What we see in all of these objects are expressions of power: the power to define, to control, and to constrain those determined to be undeserving of power or autonomy by those who have assumed the rights of freedom.
One of the great reckonings we are now con-fronted with is the degree to which policing is inadequate to the tasks of complex, equity-centered, social systems. We have watched policing inappropriately respond to challenges of the homeless, those experiencing mental health crises, victims of domestic violence, and the mistakes of youth. We have watched as police inflated (or distort, exaggerate) justifications to surveil, arrest, shoot, or choke citizens who were driving, jogging, BBQing, sleeping, or shopping while Black.

“Radically transform the world…”

By design, we are faced with the successes of the ontological model at the expense of a truly civil society. As such, we must confront the failures and chart new mental models that radically transform the world. As a profession, design should aim to design systems built on assumptions of equal personhood, and intentionally dismantle systems that affirm greater freedom for those with privilege. Striving to create systems and products that protect and affirm the whole humanity of a person at every stage of their interactions with safety personnel, and dismantling systems that rely on any form of physical, psychological, or social harm in the name of justice, are integral steps that need to be taken to transform inequitable power dynamics in our society.

Calls for police reform are inadequate, because they often seek to simply change the “look and feel” of violent objects that have been in service to an inequality project that stretches back in time to the Greco-Roman era. The seed-ling of modern policing sprouted from the soil of an ideal Platonic society of un-equals that centered and protected landed, free men. This sapling developed new objects of torture, punishment, and humiliation during the European Enlightenment era. The growing tree evolved its branches in legal and enclosure apparatus in the form of papal bulls, convict ships, and Black Codes during the European colonial period. Now this destructive tree is casting its shadow over a society feeling the brutality of its unjust policing practices.

Calls for police reform are inadequate, because they often seek to simply change the “look and feel” of violent objects that have been in service to an inequality project that stretches back in time to the Greco-Roman era.

“…do it all the time.”

Ending the brutality of policing will require the complete abolition of all underlying belief systems that deny humanity for the many; the laws that criminalize physical traits like skin color; the worldview that rewards the hyper-individualistic to acquire and hoard vast wealth; and the design praxis that brings an ergonomic approach to objects of lethal social exclusion, punishment, and enclosure.
If the ontology of policing activates the belief that the system of policing has the right and the mandate to protect the property of the privileged classes; to maintain the separation of free and non-free; to designate Black bodies as cheap labor; to watch Black bodies to make sure they move within approved spaces; and to kill Black bodies to remind them that they are expendable at any moment; then design must use all of its powers of imagination, creativity, strategy, collaboration, good will, and technical know-how to bring about new possibilities that break with the past. We encourage a continued excavation of our shared, historical ideals—from Plato’s ideal man to the ideologies of social justice—in order to forge a society of actual liberty, opportunity, and justice for all.

Sometimes we have to do the work even though we don’t yet see a glimmer on the horizon that it’s actually going to be possible.
– Angela Davis


From Design Museum Magazine Issue 018