Petitioning Against Prison Design - Ah-ha! Week


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Class V.

Members of the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) are trying to ban a certain practice for ethical reasons: designing solitary confinement cells and execution chambers.

To promote the cause, ADPSR has an active petition to convince the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to amend a clause in their Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Specifically, “members should uphold human rights in all of their professional endeavors.”

ADPSR’s Raphael Perry reasons, “if people are supposed to uphold human rights, the least they can do is refuse to design buildings that are explicitly intended to violate human rights.”

Background information the organization posts about the petition references a 2011 UN report concluding, “long-term solitary isolation is a form of torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment prohibited by international law.” American supermax prisons are cited as operating in violation of such principles.

In the US, an estimated 80,000 inmates are locked up in solitary confinement cells. Time reports the conditions often cause prisoners to suffer from high anxiety, panic attacks, disordered thinking, paranoia, delirium, and other cases of mental and physical deterioration. Lack of stimulation and social activity can cause humans to become confused over when to sleep or stay awake, plus there are a multitude of problems that arise when they re-integrate into society after release.

Last year, thousands of California prisoners living in solitary confinement went on a hunger strike to raise awareness of their conditions. Sperry says that people who heard about the strike and its message began to question aspects of the American prison system such as who designs the inhumane spaces where these prisoners dwell. ADPSR felt obliged to take a stance with architects.

Sperry tells BTR the petition is doing well. Local AIA chapters in San Francisco, Boston, and Portland endorse it, as do organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Its publicity also helps further highlight the issues of the prison system.

In addition to gathering petition signatures, ADPSR is putting together a physical exhibit to raise awareness about the spaces of execution chambers and prison cells. For research, they are collecting drawings from people who are currently, or were formerly, living in solitary confinement. Sperry says they’ve received over two-dozen submissions so far.

“State departments of corrections won’t provide those kinds of architectural information,” he explains. “We’ve really had to rely on incarcerated people themselves and it’s really been successful in reaching out to them, and [we’ve experienced] good correspondence in providing information.”

When asked about whether it’s possible for architects to design more humane prison spaces than the ones prevalent today, Sperry responds that the ethics of working with the incarceration system in the US are complicated. There are overarching philosophical issues in a system that advocates being “tough on crime” and promotes a “policy of retribution over restoration.” Mass incarceration is another aspect one must consider, plus oftentimes people get locked into solitary confinement cells for convictions like minor drug offenses or for being mentally ill and untreated.

“Even the [prison] design with the best of intentions is not likely to function well for many years,” Sperry says.

Another problem that Sperry brings up is that it’s common for funds and resources to get diverted to building prisons when they could be used to build constructive structures for improved living conditions, for instance, mental health centers, health clinics, or housing.

“As an architect I certainly believe strongly that the physical surroundings that we live in create opportunities and they influence our behavior,” he states.

ADRSP also publishes books about community design and positive public space, and its members promote environmentally friendly buildings and products.

To draft a blueprint aimed to better society as a whole, the very spaces we interact with must correctly correspond to the overall design.