Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Prison Design Boycott a Challenge to the Professional Business of Incarceration

Prison Design Boycott a Challenge to the
Professional Business of Incarceration

by Raphael Sperry, ADPSR National President, and the Prison Design Boycott organizing group: Ariel Bierbaum, Juan Calaf, Karen Kearney, and Kathleen Monroe

Saying No" to Prisons

In September 2004 the non-profit organization Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) issued a call for architects and design industry professionals to quit working on prisons. ADPSR's Prison Design Boycott campaign challenges the role of design professionals (a term that encompasses architects, engineers and planners) within the prison-industrial complex and society at large. The boycott's immediate issues would seem to be how necessary designers are to prisons, and conversely how much prisons mean to designers, especially in economic terms. But the professional, ethical social issues raised by the boycott go far beyond the boundaries of those who draw up the blueprints, CAD files and specifications that outline state power. The boycott also creates a collective voice for social justice and a shared platform for organizing and advocacy among design professionals, potentially signaling a departure from our established social role of implementing the will of the wealthy and powerful on the built environment. In ADPSR's experience, many design professionalsironically even those engaged in prison workunderstand the need for community development as a holistic method of improving social conditions, including improving public safety and reducing crime. And indeed, design professionals have a special role to play in envisioning the physical infrastructure that would accompany renewed investments in affordable housing, schools, community centers, and other public needs. As a result, the Prison Design Boycott carries both a strong negative message, No More Prisons," and a positive counterpart, Yes to Community Development."

In ADPSR's analysis, the political and economic factors behind the current lack of community development in the United States are related to the prison-industrial complex in multiple ways. The contrast between the two is particularly sharp in public spending, where one can actually chart the transfer of funds from education (especially higher education) to imprisonment. The role of planning professionals in this decision involves more than just commenting on states' annual budget process, however, as the cost of planning new prisons must be justified by planning on a future population of criminals to incarcerate. Such population forecasts are the stock in trade of planning as a profession; they are in fact central to the field's definition and claim to exclusive expertise. While never explicit, the expectation inherent in planning for a larger prison population is that crime reduction will not succeedthat today's children will be tomorrow's prisoners. De-funding education, and community development more generally, ensures that this expectation will be realized.

At a deeper level, ADPSR also believes that the lack of social development programsand especially the lack of political will to fund them through governmentstem from the negative social values that support incarceration as a general-purpose response to crime and push for harsh prison conditions. Examining the connection between right-wing Christian conservative fundamentalists and the forces of elitism and corporate power is beyond our scope, but it is our contention that the ability of these groups to control policy is dependent upon the apathy and/or consent of the majority of our fellow Americans. Undermining the currency of these values in mainstream culture, and ultimately transforming them into more positive values of cooperation, tolerance, and social justice, is an important strategy for achieving a broad range of changes to prisons (as well as other systems of coercive power). ADPSR's Prison Design Boycott is an attempt to initiate this transformation among the group of Americans within our constituent professions, and also to inject a new voice into society at large that can work to effect this transformation. Some have suggested that given widespread public fear of crime, challenges to these negative social values should start with more approachable" topics, such as protecting social security. In contrast, ADPSR believes that prisons, as the most concrete example of authoritarian control, are the most appropriate place in which to begin a transformation of how power functions in our society. For design professionals, this debate engages those of us entrusted with the shaping of our built environment in trying to shape a more just society.

Despite ADPSR's focus on organizing our own professionaland largely white and middle- to upper-classgroup, we recognize the importance of organizing across racial and class lines, not only for the ultimate success of our social goals but also for the integrity of our own organizing project. A major goal of the Boycott is to create opportunities for privileged, high-status professionals to form partnerships with less-privileged groups more directly impacted by the prison-industrial complex at the individual and structural levels. As a related point, the Boycott has already brought ADPSR into contact with professional groups of people of color, who have a diversity of views on prison issues. Most productive so far has been our work with the Planning and the Black Community Division of the American Planning Association (a group of 250 or so African-American planners within the 35,000-member APA). ADPSR is encouraging and supporting PBCD to raise resistance to the prison-industrial complex as a policy item for APA as a wholea move that would create debate about the PIC and offer educational opportunities among hundreds of APA members, regardless of the outcome at the organizational level.

Some Numbers: Architecture Firms and Prison Design
Many professionals play a role in the design of prisons, including many types of designers and planners. ADPSR focused our quantitative investigation on architects both to draw boundaries around a cohesive study group, but also because architects traditionally play a leadership role within the design team on construction projects. In addition, public licensing of architects provides architects with a particular status in regards to new construction: in general, buildings intended for human habitation are required to be designed by a licensed professional. The nominal social return for rewarding architects with this monopoly is that architects agree to act in the public interest and accept the requirement to safeguard public health, safety, and well-being." Given the glaring (to some) contrast being between mass incarceration and public well-being, architects would seem to be fertile ground for the boycott. In addition, full participation by architects could indeed have the effect of halting prison construction (at least in theorysee below). Lastly, we recognizewith real consternation that among the general public the title of architect" carries the highest status connotations among the allied professions, and hence is most likely to get the most attention. At least rhetorically, architects are at the centerpiece of the design process, including prison design.

ADPSR would like to make it very clear that we are not trying to shame, embarrass, or single-out the design firms that do prisons as bad" architects. We have multiple reasons for saying this. First, we understand from personal conversations that many people engaged in prison design are attempting to improve conditions for people in prison, who often otherwise have few advocates. This intention is worthy of respect, and while other prison designers may be more interested in earning money, we know that they do not feel that they are deserving of special scorn as compared to, say, designers of shopping centers or subdivisions that promote urban sprawl or have other negative social consequences. Second, we have benefited from, and continue to deeply appreciate, dialogue with prison designers. In many ways, they know more about prison design than we do, especially when looking at the level of individual institutions, although they see it in a different context. Prisons are multi-faceted institutions that have surprising corners, and we have learned much and gained a much stronger understanding of them thanks to our conversations with their architects. Finally, just as we recognize that the line between those in prison and those inside is not a simple division of the good" from the bad," we also recognize that all-too-easy error of judging designers by the type of work they do. We make no personal evaluations because of the type of work these fellow professionals of ours are engaged in, and we welcome their continued engagement with ADPSR.

Sources and Overview

Reed Construction Data's 2002 ProFile is a construction industry resource that lists a large percentage of all architects in the United States and gives their self-reported answers to a range of survey questions including the types of work they perform and the percentage of work that falls into each category. The ProFile is partly sponsored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the largest professional organization of architects in the U.S. (similar to what the AMA is for doctors). The ProFile has listed corrections" as a distinct field within architecture since the early 1990s, which is in itself an indication of the growth of the field within the profession. While the ProFile is a highly imperfect source (for instance, because many participants do not report all information, or use the same field for different data), the list of corrections" designers suggests some revealing trends about the architecture firms that design prisons. To put the ProFile data in context, we used aggregate data about the architectural profession from the AIA fact sheet Facts, Figures, and the Profession,, the AIA's 2003 Firm Survey, and Building Design & Construction magazine's Giants 300" listing of 2005.

Overall, prison design is a small fraction of the design business as a whole. The AIA's breakdown of total professional revenue for 2003 gives Justice" as 2.3%; in this context, Justice Architecture" refers to the design of prisons, courthouses, and police stations. A rough estimate then is that prisons are about one-third of this 2.3%, or maybe a little more, since they are bigger and more expensive than police stations. We would estimate that prison work is 1% of all revenues for the architecture professionhardly a bread-and-butter issue. Given that the total gross revenue for the architectural profession was $25.5 billion (also in 2003), prison design would seem to be worth around $250 million per year (40% of which is for renovations or additions, rather than new buildings). By comparison, according to the American Correctional Association's Directory for 1998-99, annual prison construction expenditures were over $4.3 billion (including $1.3 billion in maintenance and repair projects).

The Prison-Design Workforce

673 architecture firms reported designing prisons in 2002. While there is probably some under-reporting, given the 16,500 architecture firms in the US, this is about 4% of architecture firms. These 673 firms together employ 37,000 workers, or almost 20% of the total design workforce. How can 4% of firms employ 20% of the workers? Prison design is weighted towards larger firms. Counted as full-time workers, we would estimate that between 2,000 and 7,000 people are actively engaged in prison design in the United States, approximately half of whom are architects (many firms in the ProFile did not report some of the information for calculating this, requiring us to extrapolate). We can estimate that the average gross revenue per designer is between $35,000 and $125,000; given the typical earnings of architecture firms, the higher numbers are more likely, making a lower number of total workers more likely.1
By comparison, as of this writing (November 2005), ADPSR's Boycott campaign has over 400 signatures, including over 100 licensed architects. While this is less than 1% of the profession over all, this is between 4-20% (probably more than 10%) of the number of total prison designers. It is quite conceivable that within another few years of work, the number of designers pledging not to work on prisons will be larger than the number of designers actively doing prison design. To our knowledge, only one signer was previously engaged in prison design (see below), but given the small numbers involved, each individual counts. Our student signers are also significant because they represent the next generation of sought-after talent. To quote Art Gensler, chair of the largest design firm in the U.S., getting key people is a big issue for us, and for our [engineering] consultants & young people don't wake up in the morning and say, Gee, I want to do ductwork for the rest of my life.'2 The threat to the prison design business from a generation of designers who don't want to do prisons either could be substantial.

Specialists And Generalists

Of the 673 firms involved in prison design, only a tiny handful of firms (probably 10 or so) get 50% or more of their revenue from prison design. These are small to mid-size firms, with some sole practitioners (i.e. one-person businesses). We suspect that the lone individuals tend to do consulting and planning to prison agencies rather than direct design work. The largest firm in this group, Shremshock Architects, Inc. of Ohio, has 31 architects and reported that 85% of their work was in corrections.
What does the existence of these specialist firms mean? For one, it confirms the influence of the PIC by showing private industry's adaptation to it. But they stand out more by counter-example: most firms that design prisons do not over-specialize in it. Over 90% of the firms reporting corrections work report that it accounts for less than 20% of their billings, and for over 60% of firms doing corrections it is less than 10% of their billings. On the other hand, larger firms tend to have specialized teams for handling different areas of work prisons, airports, apartments, etc.that are comparable to separate design firms. So a large firm like HDR Architecture, with 689 staff people and 22% of their work in prisons, probably contains an internal group of 100-150 people dedicated to prison designmuch larger than the team at Shremsrock.

Prison projects are reputed to be especially lucrative. A peculiarity of the architectural world is how this lucrative business element is usednot necessarily for greater take-home bonuses, but to subsidize design efforts. In other words, prison work is said to give design firms the extra staff time to make other projects bettermaybe even projects that serve public needs such as affordable housing. Of course, the idea that the needs of disadvantaged groups can only be met with compromises that involve losses in other areas is a staple of staving off real progress for social justice.

The Big Firms

Some of the largest architecture and engineering firms in the world participate in prison design, including HOK (the #1 largest Architecture-Engineering firm in the country, with $223 million total revenue in 2004) and URS Corp. (the U.S.'s # 1 largest Engineer-Architect, a frequent military and homeland security" contractor, with $1.9 billion in 2004 revenue). A brief look at the prison-industry trade magazine Corrections Today found ads from 6 design firms, including DLR Group (16 offices, which range from 5%-65% corrections work), the Durrant Group (30% prisons work), HOK, HDR (8 offices averaging 22% prisons work), Heery International (816 total staff), and STV Architects. Of course only the biggest advertise in this fashion: all 6 are among the top 100 largest firms in architecture and engineering.

It is sensible business practice for firms of virtually all sizes, and especially for large businesses, to diversify in order to be prepared to resist downturns in any one market area. If prison construction dries up (as we intend for it to), specialized units within larger firms can be re-assigned to other project types. One critique we have frequently heard of this phenomenon is that a common area of re-specialization is public school design, which shares features with prison design such as dealing with complex and bureaucratic public agency clients, additional specialized building codes, and increasingly complicated mechanical and security requirements. The fear that a wholesale move from prison design to school design will produce schools that are more like prisons seems realistic in the context of a society employing more and more authoritarian approaches to education such as zero-tolerance," high-stakes testing and dress codes, not to mention an increased police presence in respond to hysteria over school shootings.

On The Other Hand

We would like to note that prison design is by no means essential to success. Prison design is 1% of the total earnings of the profession, and over 95% of architecture firms and architectural workers do not perform prison work. Of course, prison design is highly specialized and hard to break into, but on the other hand it is less competitive than many sectors and highly lucrative. In this context it is significant that the # 1 largest architecture firm in the country, Gensler, does not engage in prison design at all (anecdotally, likely for liability reasons). Similarly, Arup, one of the world's largest engineering companies, will reportedly not work on prisons or nuclear power plants, although ADPSR has not succeeded in confirming the company policy or the reasons behind it. Other very successful medium-sized architecture firms avoid prison design as a matter of policy (rather than simply because of alternate specializations); we hope that ongoing work on the boycott will produce conditions in which more of the profession will feel comfortable in making a public commitment to social justice.

Prison Design and Individual DesignersResponses to the Prison Design Boycott

The Prison Design Boycott has succeeded in generating a significant amount of discussion about the ethics of prison designand, by extension, of prison in general. The design pressArchitectural Record and Architecture magazines, architecture websites and blogs, etc.have published pieces about the campaign and various responses to it. We have also received many individual responses from those signing our pledge, and a small number from those angry at our campaign. Some responses have come from people in prison or formerly incarcerated, including one licensed architect. In so far as ADPSR hopes to effect transformation of ethics about prisons (and violence and militarism more broadly), reaching individuals is an important part of our work.

Positive Responses

One of the early major successes of the boycott campaign was the decision by Matthew Smith, an employee at prison design powerhouse DLR Group, to quit his job in favor of boycotting prison work. Matthew (now an ADPSR board member and active boycott organizer) wrote:

I was hired a few months ago by the Seattle office of DLR Group, a national architecture/engineering firm that promotes itself as the largest justice architecture firm in the US (they also have corporate, retail, & education departments). And, after a brief stint in their retail studio, I was placed in the justice studio where I have been involved with several large-scale prison projects.

For weeks, I've been troubled by the work that I was assigned to. While there are many fine individuals here, the firm's bottom line' has fed my worst fears about a profession that sells itself out to the highest bidder without regard to social consequences. The whole company eagerly embraces new prison jobs, as the fees eclipse all other design feesespecially those for schools. Our principal architectan old modernist himselfboasts of the efficiency with which these jobs can be accomplished on account of the repetition involved in the plans. But, as a rather idealistic young professional, I have been increasingly depressed listening to conversations about suicide-resistant materials, mechanical systems that can handle pepper-spraying (gassing!), and the all-new razor-fencing...

The psychological hold on the office staff as to the correctness' of our job is dubious. I have been told stories of prison walk-throughs where, for instance, these skilled professionals were locked in the cell of the Green River Killer', the infamous NW serial killer, for 10 minutes to see what it's like on the inside.' I am left wondering how these otherwise intelligent people are duped into viewing each prisoner as a Green River Killereffectively rationalizing the work they do.

Another view on the role of prison architects came from former San Francisco assistant sheriff Michael Marcum, who ran the city's jails for a number of years and was involved with at least four major construction projects during that time. Despite his former job, Marcum is an outspoken advocate of prison reform and abolition, and he assisted ADPSR as part of the selection panel for a poster competition associated with the boycott in September 2005. In our discussion, Marcum recalled prison design meetings:

With all the people around the tablemy staff, the budget guys, cops, and othersit was always the architects who would stick up for the things that would make conditions more humane for the people in jail, so I think they're already thinking this way. All it would take is a little extra step for them to see that more jails aren't the solution at all.

Negative responses

On the other hand, the two most common negative responses the boycott campaign has received are from people who don't want fewer prisons and dislike the campaign in general, and from people who feel that the negative message of the campaignspecifically, the call not to build thingsis in opposition to the essential purpose of architects and architecture. The first response presents a basic conflict in values and world-view that is usually fairly entrenchedin our experience, when someone is convinced that retribution is essential to social order, or that prisons stand for an important social principle, even a lengthy conversation is unlikely to change his or her mind (although it may earn his or her respect).

The second response, objecting to the not building" message, rather than the not prisons" message, runs that if architects (especially talented and concerned ones) don't participate in prison design, then prison buildings will be even more inhumane and dangerous than they already are. We think this puts design professionals in an essentially passive positionthat we must make the best of all the projects we are offered or that society desiresbut this is a hard view to dissuade many architects from, especially as it ties in to (somewhat well-founded) fears that as generalists in a design-construction industry moving towards increased specialization, architects have increasingly less to offer.3 Individuals who join the design professions tend to believe that they can find design solutions" to most problems," an attitude that is strongly reinforced in many ways by professional training. People with this attitude seem to see ADPSR as detracting from the relevance of our shared professional skills to dealing with social problems, but this is probably only a polite way of indicating a deeper displeasure with the boycott. While the architects who actually design prisons (or more often, those designing county jails where some design flexibility is allowed) may indeed be advocates for good design to benefit people in prison, those defending the need for better" prisons from the sidelines have substantially less at stake.

Abolition And Reform

Taken another way, the concern that worse prisons will result from design without architects reflects a conflict between prison reform and prison abolition views. In this instance, prison reform (we need good architects to make better prisonsand if we have better prisons, there will be less recidivism and hence improved public safety, leading ultimately to less people in prison) is advanced as the preferred option usually because prison abolition is either inconceivable or grossly misunderstood. We've gotten why not just open the gates and let everyone in prison out?" as a response a number of times. We often first try to reply that saying no prisons" and no more prisons" are different things, but this is only a temporary measure, intended to de-escalate the conversation to see if any real exchange is possible. While these questioners misunderstand the time-frame in which we are working, they do grasp the basic challenge the boycott poses to prisons as part of business as usual. To our satisfaction, not too much of the debate about the prison boycott focuses on how costly prisons are from a taxpayer perspective. Instead, the moral and ethical issues around prisons are brought more to the forefront, allowing a discussion about ends more than means.

As a social justice group, prison abolition to us is part of envisioning an ideal future: a society in which respect for every individual is central to social interaction, and where violence and coercion, rather than their victims, are marginalized. We envision healing and prevention as a social response to injuries, as an alternative to assigning blame. As we think that in the abstract, if these ideals were enacted by everyone, prisons would indeed not be necessary. For us, whether or not this ideal is achievable is not that important; it makes good sense to try to get as close to this goal as possible even if you believe that 100% achievement will never be reached. Prison reform, in contrast, indicates a more pessimistic view of human nature, a willingness to accept human failings without challenging them. While we do not object to those who think that some people will always be violent, we disagree with the conclusion that as a result society must also be violent, whether the rationale is retribution or public safety. No matter what the circumstances, we reject the idea that society must deliver violence and abuse in response to violence. That circle must be broken.

Architects, designers, and planners are, in our experience and from what research exists, more liberal" in social outlook than average Americans. Nonetheless, the idea of prison abolition is a difficult one for design professionals to understand, let alone to adopt. We believe that the difficulty of this task indicates the power of the transformation it poses to the status quo positions of power and violence.

Concluding Thoughts: Prison Buildings and Building Community
In a recent discussion with other prison abolitionists hosted by Critical Resistance and the UC Berkeley Law School, we suggested that one unique feature of the prison design boycott that might make it valuable to other activists is its focus on prison buildings. While one could argue, with good reason, that a central necessity of the struggle against the PIC is to humanize its victims in the face of constant demonization, we hope readers would also agree that drawing attention to the structural features of the PIC is just as essential, not least because it is the PIC's structural operations that operate with the least regard for individual humanity. The focus on prison buildings (or structures, to be literal) provides an excellent opportunity for discussing the structural operations of the PIC, from investment decisions, to the dehumanization inherent in the repetitiveness of prison designs, to the demographics of the people who fill them.

As we mentioned at the beginning, we at ADPSR also find that contrasting the structures we don't want immediately brings to mind the structures we do wantboth in physical terms: schools, community centers, day-care centers, public parks, safe neighborhoods, etc.; and in societal terms: fair access to employment, equality rather than prejudice and discrimination, affordable health care systems for everyone, and more. We believe that achieving these broader goals will require widespread support from all sectors of society, and we view our attempt as one piece of this necessary organization. We recognize and deeply appreciate the groups of lawyers who are advocating for legal reform, taking responsibility for their sector as we hope to for oursthe work of groups including Justice Policy Institute and the Sentencing Project have greatly influenced our understanding of prison issues and criminal justice. We also deeply respect the organizing and advocacy by those most directly oppressed by the PIC, and have learned even more from groups like Critical Resistance and All of Us or None, who explain what is at the root of incarceration.
For people who work every day envisioning the built environment, the prison design boycott is an attempt to translate the vision of healthy and productive communities in a just society into a means of organizing around the work that we do every day, and to take responsibility for the part of society we are responsible for. ADPSR welcomes contact and partnership with allied organizations and we hope to support our allies in the ongoing struggle for social justice. We hope that as more people find more ways to organize, together we can build the society that we aspire to, both with bricks and, more importantly, with shared dreams.

[More information about the campaign is available on the ADPSR website:]


1 We had hoped to have significantly more detailed research available on this topic for this article. However, most information about the construction industry is proprietary and, while not tremendously expensive, beyond ADPSR's budget to acquire. Furthermore, despite support from individuals within the AIA, ADPSR's request for joint research with AIA's Academy of Architecture for Justice was rebuffed. We would welcome further contributions to this research from allied professionals or other sources. Please contact us at

2 Stribling, Dess, The War for Talent," Building Design & Construction, July 2005, p. 74

3 Saying if we boycott prisons the government will just get civil engineers to do it without us" plays into the professional fear that architects are on the verge of being replaced by engineers and construction managers. ADPSR tries hard to counter this fear with the message that design professionals can earn a position of greater social trust by demonstrating ethical leadership. We argue that architects can and must gain ground in the industry precisely by holding the projects we do take on to a higher ethical standard than engineers and construction managers do. The design-construction industry is contested terrain in many other struggles for money, control, authority, and prestige; we have yet to see if our attempt to inject social justice into one such struggle can either raise support for social justice within the industry or actually help the groups that embrace social justice in their more day-to-day concerns.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login