Architects Against U.S. Executions and Solitary Confinement

Prisons are the concrete and steel forms of our culture of violence.

When I say that I’m an architect researching criminal justice, many people think that I want to design “better” prisons. In fact, I want architects to stop designing supermax prisons altogether. As the incoming president of the small non-profit organization Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, I have just launched a campaign asking my mainstream professional organization, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), to amend its code of ethics to ban the design of spaces intended for execution and prolonged solitary confinement.

At its root, this is a human rights campaign. The human rights community agrees that the death penalty should be ended and that prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture. AIA’s code of ethics already calls on architects to “uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors,” and so  you might think that this would be a relatively simple amendment. But this ethics code is not currently enforceable; a new 500-bed solitary isolation prison is now out for design bids in Arizona and as recently as 2010, the State of California redesigned and rebuilt their death chamber. I am hopeful that AIA will do the right thing, but know that there is a fear of challenging government and general misconceptions about the public’s view of the death penalty and harsh treatment of prisoners. Many architects will need to more fully understand the issues before things can change.

I have begun contacting chapters of the AIA and other architecture and design organizations, looking for opportunities to speak to their members and encourage their decision-makers to consider endorsing our campaign. AIA is a member-oriented organization, but architects hold public licenses and have public responsibilities. We care about public opinion.

Professional responsibility is a major theme of this campaign. Architects are responsible for, among other things, protecting public “health, safety, and welfare” in the buildings we design. It shouldn’t be asking too much to ensure that our buildings aren’t intended to hurt or kill members of the public. In this respect, I take inspiration from doctors and nurses. Their professional associations prohibit members from participating in executions or torture. Medical professionals understand that they cannot agree to government requests to hurt or kill their patients; it would violate their ethics. I expect that public respect for architects will increase as we expand our own commitment to human rights.

At the deepest level, this campaign challenges the culture of violence that infects our society. The easy acceptance of violence as a legitimate way to solve problems extends from the interpersonal level – evidenced in the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. – to the international level – where we see the U.S. engaged in a continual pattern of warfare, bombing, and military coercion. In U.S. domestic governance and community life, this culture has led to misguided “tough on crime” policies. State-led violence does not solve the problem of personal violence; it actually reinforces it. Violence won’t end through the application of superior force by police or through building increasingly punitive prisons. Instead, we must build a culture of non-violence. As one man recently released after serving many years for a murder conviction put it (speaking at a panel organized by Soros Justice fellow Nancy Mullane), the state shouldn’t be setting a bad example for our children about how to respond to someone who has caused harm.

Prisons are the concrete and steel forms of our culture of violence. Execution chambers and supermax prisons in particular are the harshest buildings we create. They are supposed to handle “the worst of the worst,” but the way I see it, these buildings themselves are the worst of a bad lot. These buildings, when operated as intended, violate human rights. They also make possible the system of mass incarceration that perpetuates violence, racism, poverty, and other social injustices.

Ending the culture of violence and building a society based on mutual respect, tolerance, and love is a tall order. But I believe that to move forward, everyone to find a way to do their part. I’m hoping that, with enough public support and private reflection, AIA’s leaders will see that the profession of architecture can take this step.

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Thank you thank you - this is huge. We need every facet of human society to take notice that we are throwing away lives, condoning exorbitant cruelty and greed, turning a blind eye to injustice and vengeance. Public support is critical to reversing a trend of glee over excessive punishment that has destroyed so many lives and families. In some indigenous cultures someone who has done wrong is brought into a circle and nurtured and supported. We need to find humane, rehabilitative ways to do the same with those who break social laws. Thank you for your work - continued support for this! Beth (and I speak on behalf of so many incarcerated for decades in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay)

Thank you for your activism and compassion. I speak on behalf of so many men incarcerated in cement solitary confinement cubes for decades at Pelican Bay - that it is time to end the indifference, neglect, vengeance and severe punishment that U.S. culture has condoned and cheered. No life is to be thrown away so carelessly and inhumanely. Some indigenous societies nurture and guide those who have transgressed. Compassion and forgiveness are keys, and we salute your work and support your efforts 100%. Thank you for all you are doing - it is no small thing, for individuals, broken families, and society as a whole.

Thank you. I am sure that I speak for all persons tortured in South Africa; and held in Solitary Confinement, and the families of persons executed by the Apathied Regime. I was detained on three occassions and held in solitary confinement. This was during 1984 and 1987. No human being has the right to put another human being in solitary confinement. Best read in 28 years. Keep up the good work. Take the initiative globally. Test the UN support for this. Really a breath of fresh air and truely inspiring.

As an international human rights attorney I certainly applaud your efforts and will be bringing these ideas to bear here in Arizona against that 500 bed super max.

When I showed the Gray Box to my class at Northwestern Law School, the first question from the students was, "Who designs these places, and how do they sleep at night?" The next day, I read about this campaign.

I assume that you have seen the Gray Box, but be sure you also read the Rolling Stone article (December 6th issue) Slow Motion Torture, which describes the destruction of men's minds in solitary, focusing on my friend, client, and co-worker, Brian Nelson, Moho survived 12 years in Tamms supermax.

Great project. Any help we can give, let us know.

I travel a lot. Coming in to a new city and seeing the architecture, I'm never quite sure at first sight whether any given building is a hospital, a school, or a prison. They always seem to have a lot in common.

Please add nursing/retirement facilities to the human list please.

Have we gone back to the middle ages? A free society and one that purports to be intelligent and free must uphold these values. If not take down lady liberty and rescind our reputation. Humanity should progress not digress so take a stand for better solutions in justice.

I'm so pleased to read this. Last year when I read about the prison in VA where prisoners are in solitary confinement most of the time, I simply couldn't believe it and I hate finding that each time I"ve think I've seen the pinnacle of cruelty that one humen being is capable of inflicting on another - something new, like this is there to take the last things place. Surely, we can rescue ourselves from this moral bog!

We more homes, not prisons.

I am against of all illegal killings exicutions all solitary confinement tortures , thank you for your campaign activism I support all of your great efforts for a peacefull future without war torture killing solitary confinement, great! World centre for democracy practice supports you.

I think by now the message that architects bear a great responsibility for the behavioral outcome of people--prisoners--exposed to their imprisonment design is clear.
A former prisoner, I experienced the coldness of mortar and steel, the high ceilings that make a person feel small (insignificant), the designed: steel beds with holes in the beds for chains to tie a prisoner down, cell doors with openings to allow tear gas to be shot in, limited control of toilets, lights and water are all mechanically suited to support imposing punishment.
Nothing in the design of so-called super-max prisons, nothing, is designed in service of promoting positive human behavior. Architects in their super-max prison models do a disservice to human beings. Every super-max or regular prison built so far flies in the face of humanity.

Don't they know, the second a person sets foot in prison they will have to deal with violence on a daily basis. It's been likened to being in combat. If you were a peace loving person when you walked in, chances are you will have learned violent behaviors by the time you are released. What are they thinking!

This is such a polarizing issue. While I've been doing somekitchen remodeling buffalo, our crew has gotten into this debate lately. Architects certainly affect people's patterns and behaviors. I hope to never be in that position.

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