Tough Cell: architects’ involvement in prison design

The American Institute of Architects has rejected proposed ethical policy changes which would prevent US practices designing facilities for torture. Mimi Zeiger reports

Should architects design for torture? Of course not. The answer seems so clear, so unequivocally in line with the contemporary image of the architect as a just shaper of the society, a creative world citizen serving both client and public.

When we switch the question around, however, and ask if architects should curtail their involvement in designing certain spaces associated with prisons, specifically spaces intended for execution and prolonged solitary confinement, the answer becomes murky. Client-side alliances and post-occupancy reporting complicate the architect’s societal duty. Such restriction asks architects to take an ethical and human rights stance on ongoing practices that could be considered out of their control.

Last year, the not-for-profit campagining organisation Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) petitioned the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to amend their Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct in order to directly address architecture’s relationship to torture (AR April 2014).

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the exercise yard of Pelican Bay State Prison, designed by San Francisco-based practice KMD Architects

ADPSR’s proposed Rule 1.402 reads, ‘Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement,’ which would have brought AIA policy in line with the United Nations declaration of Human Rights. It sounds reasonable enough but last month, the organisation made public a letter from the AIA Board of Directors and signed by outgoing AIA president Helene Combs Dreiling rejecting the proposals. In the letter the AIA claimed that the Code of Ethics is ‘more about desirable practices and attitudes than condemnation’, that the proposals would be difficult to enforce and that they could provoke anti-trust challenges by making architects unable to compete in a market stating that the ‘AIA Code of Ethics should not exist to create limitations on the practice by AIA members of specific building types’.

US prisons pose a particular conundrum as a building type; they contain programmes such as  execution chambers and, in the case of supermax prisons, provide architecture for systematised solitary confinement. In 2011, UN Special Rapporteur Juan E Méndez reported that solitary confinement in excess of 15 days constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Although in theory the AIA Code of Ethics stipulates that members should uphold human rights, in practice many US architects take on contacts to design controversial facilities. Other professions, such as doctors and nurses, have explicitly disavowed participation in practices associated with torture − the ADPSR proposal would have aligned architects with their professional peers.

‘Are inmates a population in need of better architecture or, in its systematised application, is architecture an accomplice in a much larger injustice?’

Execution facilities are relatively modest design commissions − generally interior renovations undertaken by prison in-house designers. Architectural abstinence in regards to these chambers has little business interest impact on the overall field. Segregated housing poses a more difficult dilemma. The term refers to the structures of solitary confinement and includes a spectrum of types from a discrete cell to an isolation wing to a supermax compound that houses thousands of inmates for years. For architects, such facilities should fall within ethical bounds if they house inmates for under 15 days but it is an awkward position, one that pivots on the veracity of client-side reporting. An architect may design within the code only to find that post-occupancy use pushes into torture territory. The AIA’s stance recognises that enforcement of the 15-day rule is potentially a difficulty beyond an architect’s reasonable control.

Yet what’s at stake here goes beyond business interests or regulatory enforcement issues. Missing from the AIA’s decision are two crucial underlying considerations: what is the architect’s role in the design of prisons and how should the ethics of architecture as a profession address social issues.

The AIA’s very limited interpretation of the proposed code change understands it as a procedural complication rather than an ethical obligation − when combined with the organisation’s generally risk-adverse relationship with its membership, their decision seems disappointingly inevitable.

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The Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado. To the right is a supermax complex infamous for its use of prolonged solitary confinement which is defined by the United Nations as a form of torture. The facility was jointly designed by architects DLR Group and LKA Partners both of whom specialise in prison design

Undeterred, ADPSR plans to continue its campaign. Its next steps include appealing to a higher power by bringing a proposal to the International Union of Architects (UIA).

In his 2014 book Collections and Corrections, architect and author Joe Day tracks the parallel booms in prison and museum construction. ‘Designing prisons requires a dystopian mathematics of refusal,’ he writes. That mathematics stems from the sheer number of people in US prisons. A 2005 census of prisoners in US facilities reported that more than 80,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement. Of these, 25,000 are in supermax prisons. Is this a population in need of better architecture or, in its systematised application, is architecture an accomplice in a much larger injustice?
‘US prisons are distinguished by a cycle of innovation that first resituates inmates in unforeseen ways, then capitalises on that new situation through massive economies of scale,’ writes Day, going on to describe an architecture of seamless cells outfitted with concrete bunks and 24-hour fluorescent lighting (so that guards can monitor sleeping inmates via cameras).

‘Supermax prisons are designed to isolate people,’ explains Raphael Sperry, president of ADPSR. ‘There is no congregation space. Nearly every action takes place through a slot in the door − all meals are pushed through the slot, all nursing visits take place through the cell door, all medication.’ Inmates in solitary are allotted one hour of exercise per day. At Pelican Bay State Prison, designed by San Francisco-based practice KMD Architects, the exercise yard is dank and narrow, with high concrete walls like the one in Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian film, A Clockwork Orange. Natural light enters through a barred skylight. Sperry describes the architecture of segregated housing as ‘anti-architecture’ − valuing reductive reproducible design and rejecting positive architectural ideals of communality and individuality that have evolved with the discipline since the era of the Enlightenment.

Many architects involved in prison design argue that it is the responsibility of architects as a profession and industry to make better spaces for everyone, for the entire public − including inmates. Perhaps the best way to serve a public of incarcerated people is to fully recognise them as a public, even if their freedom is curtailed. Over the last two years, ADPSR and the AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice discussed the possibility for prison design guidelines which, if  developed further could give architects, if not an ethical guidance, at the least, unified design criteria. But at the moment the US is stuck at a crossroads: the AIA citing procedural and legal technicalities, while ADPSR fights the case for human rights.

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