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Architects’ Ethics Panel to Consider Boycott of Execution Chambers and Prison Design

by David Reutter

An advocacy group composed of architects, building designers and planners is hailing a decision by the National Ethics Council of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to reconsider a proposal to prohibit its members from designing “execution chambers and spaces intended for torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”

The decision marked a significant reversal of the AIA’s position on the issue of building and designing execution chambers and facilities that hold prisoners in solitary confinement. The organization’s Board of Directors had outright rejected the proposal as recently as 2014, and the decision to reconsider means the AIA National Ethics Council will review the proposal for the first time.

“We salute AIA’s 2015 and 2016 Presidents for taking another look at this vitally important issue,” said the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) in a February 24, 2016 statement.

In a letter to the ADPSR in late October 2015, the president of the AIA announced the organization’s intent to reconsider the proposal.

“In the letter, President Elizabeth Chu Richter informed us that the AIA’s National Ethics Council will be considering our ethics proposal as well as other public statements that AIA could make in support of human rights,” the ADPSR statement said. “We commend AIA on continuing to wrestle with this issue and we look forward to participating in discussions with the National Ethics Council on human rights.”

“Since AIA’s rejection [in 2014], two more medical professional associations – this time, of pharmacists – have told their members not to participate in executions, and the United Nations has adopted new human rights rules for the treatment of prisoners specifically barring the kind of solitary confinement routinely practiced across the United States,” the statement continued. “This makes 2016 the right time for AIA to update its position, too.”

In 2015, the American Pharmacists Association released a public statement discouraging its members from “providing medical drugs to be used for execution, as it is contrary to the values of their profession.” The International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists adopted a similar position.

While architecture might be the last thought on the mind of anyone considering jail or prison reform efforts, it has become a top priority for the people who plan, design and build such facilities – especially considering the dramatic increase in the nation’s jail and prison populations over the past 40 years. In states such as California, the prison population experienced a ten-fold increase since the 1980s.

The non-descript, monolithic, largely windowless buildings that comprise a jail or prison, euphemistically referred to in more recent years as correctional or detention facilities, are usually tucked away in remote rural areas or lonely corners of cities. They are also typically marketed as such. For example, HOK Architects, a large corporate firm that designed the 1997 Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles, tucks its portfolio of jail and prison designs into the “justice buildings” category of its website.

American society has begun to re-examine its decades-long experiment with tough-on-crime sentencing and mass incarceration. This reflection was spurred in part by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who, in an August 2013 speech, acknowledged the failure of the “War on Drugs” and later made modest efforts to rein in abusive sentencing practices by federal prosecutors.

“Widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” Holder said, calling the U.S. prison population “unnecessarily large.”

As the public’s attention has focused on the 2.2 million people housed in our nation’s prisons and jails, the design of the facilities themselves is also coming into view. A new book, Corrections & Collections: Architecture for Art and Crime, by architect Joe Day, not only explores the history of correctional facilities but also examines the overlap between the designs of prisons and museums.

The “evolution of prisons and museums” over the last three decades is a “conflation of collection and punishment,” writes Mike Davis in the book’s introduction. “Day’s thesis, refined to a single sentence, is that the warehousing of surplus people and over-valued objects on an unprecedented scale is the expression of a single social logic.”

The modern prison cell and the art world’s prototypical “white cube” gallery space both call for strict minimalism, and fanatical control of sightlines and lighting. In one striking example, photographs in Corrections & Collections place a prison on one side and a museum on the other; it is nearly impossible to tell them apart.

The completion of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison in 1989, designed by KMD Architects, drew attention to the harsh conditions of solitary confinement. Raphael Sperry, a leader in the prison-design boycott movement who refers to long-term solitary confinement as torture, was one of the influential individuals who urged the AIA to amend its code of ethics and professional conduct to ban members from designing solitary confinement cells and execution chambers.

An ADPSR online petition endorsing the proposal has attracted 2,215 supporters as of March 16, 2016. Signers agree to “not contribute my design to the perpetuation of wrongful institutions that abuse others,” and “pledge not to do any work that furthers the construction of prisons or jails.”

Those adding their names are asked “to reinforce this message by thanking AIA for their reconsideration and encouraging them to take a strong stand for human rights!” the petition concludes.

According to the ADPSR, architectural designers “would rather be using our professional skills to design positive social institutions such as universities or playgrounds, but these institutions lack funding because of spending on prisons.” As a result, the organization is also encouraging architects and designers to support alternatives to correctional facilities.

With respect to filling newly-constructed prisons, policymakers often say, “build it and they [prisoners] will come” – a takeoff on a line from the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams.”

But what if no one builds it? That, ultimately, is the goal of the ADPSR’s proposal. To express support for the proposal, contact the National Ethics Council, American Institute of Architects, 1735 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20006.

Sources: Los Angeles Times,, 

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