Drawing the Line: Architects and Prisons

Drawing the Line: Architects and Prisons

Drawing the Line: Architects and Prisons

A call for architects to refuse to design chambers of living death.


Architects have been tested immemorially by the question of where to draw the line, and the choices are not exclusively aesthetic. Because buildings have uses and frame and enable particular activities, their ethical aspect is inevitable by simple association. The connection can be fuzzy or clear. Bauhaus grads worked on the plans for Auschwitz, and someone thought hard about the ornamentation on the facade of the Lubyanka. This was unambiguously wrong. So too was the target of the first explicitly architectural demonstration I ever attended, which was organized by a group called the Architects’ Resistance. We marched in front of the headquarters of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, then at work designing a skyscraper in apartheid Johannesburg. The leaflet handed out suggested that somewhere upstairs was a draftsman designing two men’s rooms—one black and one white.

Sometimes the argument is less clear-cut. What about a client who specifies endangered hardwoods in a project? What about using materials with high levels of embodied energy, like aluminum? What of working for gentrifiers, or designing buildings in countries where construction labor is cruelly exploited and forced to work in dangerous conditions? Building is rife with politics, and ideally an architect will always consider the ethical implications of what he or she designs. The scale, of course, can slide: there are presumably also those who will demur at working on an abortion clinic, a nuclear power station, even a mosque.

In this country, much of the leadership on the question of architectural ethics has been provided by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), and since 2004, a focus of its activities has been the design of prisons. It has promulgated a pledge not to participate in any such work. (I signed on long ago.) The reasons for refusing such projects are many: disgust with the corrupt enthusiasm and extravagance of our burgeoning “prison industrial complex”; objections to our insane rates of incarceration, our cruel, draconian sentencing practices and the wildly disproportionate imprisonment of minorities. Designing spaces of confinement and discipline is also contrary to what most architects imagine as their vocation: the creation of comfortable, humane, even liberating environments. 

ADPSR has now focused its efforts on the worst aspects of imprisonment—execution, torture and solitary confinement—and is in the midst of a campaign to convince the American Institute of Architects (AIA, representing about 75 percent of licensed architects) to amend its code of ethics to explicitly exclude participation in designing the sites of such barbarity. This new petition has more than 1,000 signatures, and the institute’s San Francisco chapter has become the first to vote its collective support for the drive. The no-solitary restriction is the most radical revision yet proposed to the code, which already protects unpaid interns and encourages “public interest design” and “obligations to the environment.”

ADPSR—behind the energetic leadership of its president, Raphael Sperry—has asked the AIA to “prohibit the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” and cites existing language in the code which stipulates that “members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” In particular, ADPSR advocates an explicit refusal to design execution chambers and “supermax” prisons, which are conceived for the universal solitary confinement of their inmates.

According to the website Solitary Watch, “at least 80,000 prisoners are in some form of isolated confinement, including 25,000 in supermax prisons.” The US average for time spent in solitary is five years, and there are, according to NPR and other sources, thousands who are held in such isolation for decades. The cruelty and psychological damage of this form of punishment has long been widely known. The UN’s special rapporteur on torture has described the practice as “cruel, inhumane and degrading” and urges that it not be used for juveniles or the mentally ill, nor for longer than fifteen days in any circumstances, noting that this is the threshold for permanent psychological damage. In July, Scientific American—joining other mainstream media, including The New York Times—published an editorial that called for a halt to this practice, citing a Supreme Court decision noting that “a considerable number of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide, while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” The decision is from 1890. The editorial’s conclusion: “Solitary confinement is not only cruel, it is counterproductive. The U.S. should reclaim the wisdom it once held and dramatically limit the practice.”

* * *

Supermax prisons are exactingly designed to kill souls. A solitary cell (referred to as the “hole” or the “box”) is typically between seventy and eighty square feet, and prisoners are kept alone in them for twenty-three hours a day, with one hour alone in a “yard” barely twice the size of the cell and a shower perhaps three times a week. Practically all human contact is mediated by bars, mesh or manacles, and many cells are windowless, with an inmate’s exposure to the world outside the cell limited to the door slots through which food is passed by the gloved hands of jailers, often in the form of “the loaf,” a disgusting pressed amalgam of pulverized food. Cells are, in most cases, deliberately colorless (any “aesthetic” ingredient is considered an inappropriate privilege in an environment that seeks to level all distinctions to the basest level) and are built—bunks and all—from bare concrete; the only furnishing is a stainless steel toilet-and-sink combo positioned to deny privacy. The lighting is never turned off.

A number of observers, including Michel Foucault, Erving Goffman, David Rothman and Sharon Shalev, have told the history of the institutionalization of imprisonment, including the fluctuating sense of its purpose and the social and physical organization of its practices. In Shalev’s succinct taxonomy, the purpose of imprisonment—and the use of solitary confinement—has evolved from the early nineteenth century; a focus on moral reform and the redemption of souls was superseded by a postwar emphasis on Skinneresque behavior modification, itself replaced by today’s practices of “risk management.” The supermax represents the almost complete abandonment of the idea of rehabilitation, replacing it with a hypercruelty of convenience.

Much of this history has been written in architecture. In the early days of the Republic, an argument raged between the carceral philosophies of the Philadelphia and Auburn, New York, prisons. In the former’s “separate system,” prisoners were held in a state of constant solitary confinement, whereas in Auburn’s “silent system,” they slept in solitude but mingled in silence with other inmates for meals, work and recreation. Partisanship was intense on both sides, and Shalev cites an exponent of the separate system criticizing its rival in 1854: “‘The silent congregated system…is a great step towards real improvement…[but it fails] in reformation of morals as well as correction of the offender’ since, although the prisoner is prohibited from communicating with others, he is still surrounded by them, and ‘the winking of the eye, the movement of the finger, a sneeze or a cough, is enough to communicate what is desired.’”

Hovering over much of both the architectural and social debate is Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, his 1791 scheme for a prison based on a radial organization of the cells with a concealed observer at the center. The much-marked genius of what Foucault called this “cruel, ingenious cage” was that discipline was imposed invisibly: even in the absence of the all-seeing guard, the sense of always being observed was inculcated, transferred as anxiety to the prisoners themselves. This design has had a long life, both practically (many prisons were built on this model) and as a metaphor. It has become a kind of portmanteau for descriptions of the surveillance society of which we are all increasingly inhabitants, even as Bentham’s pure geometry of supervision has been displaced by a ubiquitous network of cameras, taps and search algorithms. The supermax prison is a highly technologized über-Panopticon: prisoners leave their cells for exercise or showers via the sequential opening and closing of electronic doors, never catching sight of another person but ever under the system’s inescapable gaze. 

* * *

The question of why we incarcerate through such alienating means and in such massive numbers continues to trouble and confound. All the arguments are, of course, disciplinary and include the obvious conclusion that the wave of prison construction that began under Reagan in the 1980s—based on a nearly complete abandonment of rehabilitative ideals and a “punitive turn” in corrections—is one of the ugly legacies of the Gipper, Papa Bush and Bill Clinton, a racist project pure and simple: Willie Horton was no aberration. This prison rush—described by Loïc Wacquant as a switch from the rehabilitation of convicts to the rehabilitation of the prison—has a weird dystopian parallel with the public housing projects of the postwar years, a massive scheme to isolate people of dubious class and color and to inculcate in them the habits of order. Indeed, the huge prison-building program of the past decades was far larger than any public attempt to construct conventional housing. Likewise, the massive privatization of prison construction and administration—much like the current militarization of the Mexican border—can be seen as a perverse “peace dividend” for the private contractors whose bottom lines grow wobbly as Washington scales back on bellicose adventures abroad.

It’s no coincidence that hunger strikes recently took place simultaneously at Guantánamo and, by tens of thousands, throughout the California system; despite their different practices of imprisonment, these places are representative of the American style of coercive justice and a universalized state of war against the other. Without doubt, solitary confinement is qualitatively the same experience at all of these places and mixes ideas of control and colonization, the punitive and the productive: Guantánamo used the supermax as its model. This production includes information, deterrence, retribution and correction, whether of the soul or of some specific behavior. But the medium is always discipline and deprivation. In all instances, what is produced has been demonstrated time and again to be nothing but cruelty to prisoners and the convenience of the jailer. And whether in Guantánamo or upstate New York, the result is ultimately failure. Supermax prisons are factories of recidivism, rage, madness and suicide. James Ridgeway and Jean Casella have, in this magazine, cited evidence that the suicide rate in solitary is five times the rate of the general prison population.

While there is widespread agreement that solitary confinement is a form of torture, the debate about it reflects the same dissembling that surrounded “enhanced interrogation,” as if torture could simply be described away. In the case of solitary confinement, the terms of art include “administrative segregation,” “disciplinary confinement,” “security housing” and “restricted housing.” This rename-it-and-disclaim-it evasion provides the wiggle room for professional participation. The well-documented collusion of psychologists in the design of American ways of torture is shameful and has resulted in a professional push-back which parallels that of architects who refuse to design prisons for solitary confinement. For those psychologists who do participate, the exculpatory ruse is the question of drawing the line at “permanent” damage, and the claim is that they are there to monitor risk, not to administer it.

The interest of architects who engage in prison work would not appear to be altruistic. The back flap of a standard guide for professional prison designers offers this peppy injunction: “Now you can acquire the savvy needed to capitalize on the boom in correctional facility construction and renovation!” A headline on CNN Money is even more succinct: “The nation’s 2 million inmates and their keepers are the ultimate captive market: a $37 billion economy bulging with business opportunity.” But “boom” scarcely describes it: since the growth of the lock-‘em-up mentality driven by the Rockefeller drug laws, various three-strikes formulations, and a general spirit of rage at the poor, minorities, the undocumented and the dependent that has polluted our polity, the growth in prison construction has been exponential. The number of state and federal prisons rose by 43 percent from 1990 to 2005, with a new prison opening every fifteen days at the peak of the boom; and the country’s rate of incarceration in the past decades has grown 400 percent to lead the world: the United States, with 5 percent of the planet’s population, has 25 percent of its prisoners and now “controls” over 7 million people either in jail or under some form of penal supervision. Employment in the sector rivals that of the automobile industry. 

The leading prison design firm in the United States is the DLR Group (website motto: “Elevate the human experience through design”), which claims over $3.5 billion worth of work in the field and created the first federal supermax prison, the Florence Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Colorado (the “Alcatraz of the Rockies”). Opened in 1994, Florence was the culmination of a line of development that can be traced from the Arizona SMU (Special Management Unit) in 1986 and refined by the notorious Pelican Bay in 1989. There is an archipelago of architectural offices that do the work of designing for “justice,” and many of them embed this aspect of their practice in lists of other building types, including schools, hospitals, military facilities and so on. Kitchell, which claims 150 projects and more than 200,000 beds in its portfolio, cheerily proclaims that “Prisons Can Be Green Too.” Other firms with a strong presence in the field include Arrington Watkins, KMD and the notorious Schenkel Schultz, also implicated in the design of Gitmo.

In Shalev’s study—and others—it becomes clear that architects discharge their professional responsibilities by cleaving closely to their clients’ demands, rather than by thinking about the human consequences of those demands for the majority of the population housed in their work. Shalev quotes an architect she interviewed as saying, in effect, that his primary responsibility is the safety and comfort of the prison staff and that all else is secondary. Increasingly, the business contract simply replaces the social contract, something reflected as well in the great wave of privatization of prison construction and administration, led by the likes of the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), Community Education Centers, Cornell Companies and the Management and Training Corporation. And big money is to be made not simply in design and management but in food service (Aramark is big in both prison and university feeding systems) as well as logistics and supply.

Just as doctors are enjoined by their oath from the actual performance of state-sanctioned murder, so architects should resist when confronted with the design of death chambers. But today, hundreds of architects are engaged in the design of spaces of living death that defy every precept we should hold holy. These are lines no architect should draw.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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