Prison Architecture and the Question of Ethics

A death-row jail cell in Huntsville, Tex. The design of such quarters has raised questions.

A death-row jail cell in Huntsville, Tex. The design of such quarters has raised questions.

From The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Faced with lawsuits and a growing mountain of damning research, New York City officials decided last month to ban solitary confinement for prison inmates 21 and younger. Just a few weeks earlier, the American Institute of Architects rejected a petition to censure members who design solitary-confinement cells and death chambers.

“It’s just not something we want to determine as a collective,” Helene Combs Dreiling, the institute’s former president, told me. She said she put together a special panel that reviewed the plea. “Members with deeply embedded beliefs will avoid designing those building types and leave it to their colleagues,” Ms. Dreiling elaborated. “Architects self-select, depending on where they feel they can contribute best.”

What are the ethical boundaries for architecture? Architecture is one of the learned professions, like medicine or law. It requires a license, giving architects a monopoly over their practices, in return for a minimal promise that buildings won’t fall down. Raphael Sperry, the Bay Area architect who spearheaded the petition to the institute, thinks the public deserves more in return for that monopoly.


A gurney in a prison death chamber in Huntsville, Tex.

I met with him here the other morning to talk about the institute’s decision. He said architects have a basic responsibility to act in the public interest, pointing to the institute’s code of ethics and professional conduct, which states, “Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” That’s boilerplate, without teeth.

Mr. Sperry and his organization, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, wanted the institute to adopt a rule similar to the American Medical Association’s, which specifically prohibits doctors from participating in execution or torture.

He and I puzzled over solitary confinement, which takes many forms, and whose ethics have a lot to do with enforcement, not just design. Death chambers, by contrast, are custom-built for one purpose. Mr. Sperry’s point was that a rule against them would merely reiterate the association’s standard about human rights.

But the A.I.A. said no, it doesn’t regulate building types. It also said the rule would be hard to enforce.

That sounded like double talk. So I called Ms. Dreiling. “The code has to do with the way architects practice, treat each other, perform in the eyes of our clients,” she told me. “It isn’t about what architects build.”

I asked if the institute has issued any position or policy statement about death chambers.

“No,” she said. “If we begin to stipulate the types of projects our members can and cannot do, it opens a can of worms.”

I imagined that she was talking about other politically fraught buildings, like, say, nuclear power plants or abortion clinics. Mr. Sperry said there was a difference with death chambers. International human-rights treaties don’t explicitly prohibit abortion or nuclear power, as they do execution and torture. The United Nations and other international human-rights organizations consider the death penalty a violation of human rights.

“Is there nothing so odious that the A.I.A. wouldn’t step in?” he asked. “What about concentration camps? The A.I.A. is basically saying business is more important than human rights. Yes, this is a tough profession. But you don’t gain respect by hunkering down in a position of fear. You just dig yourself deeper into a hole.”

If architects want more respect, he argued, they need to take a stand. This is an interesting moment, with echoes in the past. A century ago, movements like the Bauhaus, looking to improve design for the masses, emerged from a culture in which the widening gulf between rich and poor was sundering civil society.

Today, prison design is a civic cause for some architects who specialize in criminal justice and care about humane design. There is a lot of research documenting how the right kinds of design reduce violence inside prisons and even recidivism. Architects can help ensure that prisons don’t succumb to our worst instincts — that they are not about spending the least amount of money to create the most horrendous places possible, in the name of vengeance — but promote rehabilitation and peace.

Designing execution chambers is something else. They require their own deathly architecture. If architects refuse to design them, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be built, any more than the refusal by doctors and pharmaceutical companies to participate in executions has stopped executions from happening. But Ms. Dreiling said it herself: “Many, if not most, architects enter this profession because it is a calling. They believe they can make the world a better place, they believe they can enhance the lives of people on a daily basis, where they live, work and play.”

So is it really too much to ask that the organization representing architects take a stand against projects whose sole purpose is to do the reverse?