Should Architects Boycott Building ‘Supermax’ Prisons?

Should Architects Boycott Building ‘Supermax’ Prisons?

There’s no question that solitary confinement — the nebulous, undefined and largely undocumented practice that Amnesty International, the NYCLU and the UN call torture — can cause horrific psychological damage to prisoners. But are the architects who build these structures responsible for them?

An interview featured on American Public Media yesterday delves into a fascinating and troubling topic. You see, architects, just like doctors and lawyers, maintain their own ethics code. And one of its clauses says that “members should uphold human rights in all their endeavours.” It’s easy to see how designing a “supermax” prison — which uses architecture to isolate prisoners indefinitely — could be construed as a violation of that code.

One architect, named Raphael Sperry, is leading the charge to encourage architects to abstain from participating in the practice. He explains:

When solitary confinement necessitates a particular kind of space, and you’re specifying that space, and you’re making sure that all the doors can be operated without seeing another human being, and that the outdoor space can only be occupied by one person at a time, and there’s nowhere for a group of people to actually be together, then that is a design intent. When used as intended, human rights violations will result.

Sperry would like to include the following dictat in the AIA code: “Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.” He’s also organising other efforts to draw attention to the issue, like a Prison Design Boycott.

Of course, supermax prisons will be built, with or without architects, but he raises an interesting point: Are architects obligated to vet their clients’ ethics? This has been an issue for centuries, but recent discussion around the topic is intensifying. (At Columbia’s graduate architecture program, critic and historian Kazys Varnelis has even led a studio about the issue of “evil architecture”.)

Here’s a contemporaneous example: Should architects operating in China turn down commissions from the government, if they object to the human rights violations that are regularly carried out by the state?

Listen to Sperry’s argument for yourself here.

The anatomy of a supermax prison, via Carrington.