We Punish People with Architecture: The Dilemma of Designing Prisons

Written by

“It sounds odd to say, but it’s nonetheless true: we punish people with architecture. The building is the method. We put criminals in a locked room, inside a locked structure, and we leave them there for a specified period of time. . .  It wasn’t always so. Prison is an invention, and a fairly recent one at that: it wasn’t until the 18th century that incarceration became our primary form of punishment.”

New York Times article published a few years ago about a prison in Leoben, Austria (left) that was conceived by architect Josef Hohensinn to bring in sunlight and openness and to give some sense of humanity to the inmates.

Now the nature of prison design has come to the fore in California, with a hunger strike now in its second week, that has cast an ugly spotlight on living conditions, particularly solitary confinement, in the state’s correctional facilities. There have also been reports of unauthorized sterilizations on almost 150 female inmates in California prisons from 2006-2010; and overcrowding in California’s prisons has caught the attention of a federal judicial panel who mandated the release of 9,600 inmates.

writing in Artinfo about Pelican Bay State Prison (a solitary confinement cell in Pelican Bay pictured below, left courtesy of Solitary Watch), inmates experience “one of two extremes: stifled overcrowding, where the risk of contracting contagious diseases runs high, or solitary confinement, a psychologically debilitating practice that the UN Human Rights Council condemned as torture in 2011.” She continues: “Although there’s no telling the extent to which the architects at KMD could have foreseen this dehumanizing climate springing from their design, California-based architect and Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) founder Raphael Sperry directs us to an ugly truth: they are inherently complicit in the outcome.”

PelicanBay-SHUcellPrison design presents a dilemma for many architects, who, since the advent of Modernism, have been taught that architecture can be utopian, that it can enhance lives, not diminish them.

ADPSR’s Raphael Sperry, writing recently in GOOD magazine, is urging the American Institute of Architects “update their code of ethics to ban the design of new prisons for prolonged solitary confinement, along with the design of execution chambers.”

This begs the questions, how much of a role can architects play in shaping the program, not just the form, of a prison. What do you think? Are prisons innately inhumane and does their architecture only reinforce that? Can prison design contribute to rehabilitation? We will follow this on DnA; if you are involved with prison design, please comment below or write us at dna@kcrw.org with your thoughts.

NOTE: In an intriguing article in Places Journal, LA-based architect Joe Day conflates two seemingly opposed building types, that have both seen extraordinary growth in recent decades: prisons and museums. He argues that after “two centuries of incremental growth, the number of correctional facilities and museums in the United States tripled, from roughly 600 prisons and 6,000 museums in 1975 to more than 1,800 prisons and 18,000 museums by 2005,” and that both have contributed to urban expansion. Museums, of course, are a building type that architects embrace.