The call from a Panamanian vice minister was a surprise: could I help with their assignment to replace a decrepit, abusive, crumbling old prison with a facility that would allow for real respect for prisoners’ human rights? As President of ADPSR I have been concerned about human rights and prison design, but ADPSR’s position is a critical one: we urge design professionals to focus on what needs to be built to help people live with dignity and address the poverty and injustice at the root of most crime – affordable housing, schools and universities, medical clinics, and the like – rather than undertake projects that fuel mass incarceration and at their worst can facilitate human rights violations.
Without hesitation I called my colleague and fellow ADPSR board member Deanna Van Buren, the leading designer of spaces for restorative justice and peacemaking. Neither of us wanted to design a prison for Panama – a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the Western hemisphere (after the U.S.) and well-known for its human rights violations. But the vice minister had been one of the foremost critics of the human rights failures of Panama, and was appointed to redress the problem. Even though executing the design would not be acceptable for us, we also couldn’t simply refuse to help these human rights advocates in a difficult situation.
Building on Deanna’s previous work doing design workshops with people inside of jails and prisons (often in partnership with students from outside), we came up with a plan to focus on the design process. Design is not just a way to get to built structures, but a powerful mode of thinking and acting that engages human creativity, intelligence, and the capacity for discovery. Because one thing we were certain of was that for anyone to make a “human rights respecting prison” in Panama would require discovering something very new: the number of arguably “good” prisons worldwide is vanishingly small, for those with cultural relevance to Latin America, it’s zero.
The key to Deanna’s workshop process is community engagement, so we focused our webinar to the vice minister on how to run community engagement workshops with people in prison, and how to apply what would be learned to the eventual design of a building intended to serve human rights. Our goal was to engage with the most basic element of human rights when it comes to prisons: people who are deprived of their liberty are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 10.1)
This approach had two-fold value. First, the only expertise for what design features would be important to the respect and dignity of people in Panamanian prisons is those people themselves: prisoners, guards, family visitors, etc. It is an all-too-common professional presumption that we understand the needs and wants of others and when so often we are separated by class, race, or other barriers. We proposed that the workshops ask simple questions such as “what kinds of places do you feel safe in.” It takes courage, delicacy, and good listening skills but design workshops can be excellent tools for drawing out potential occupants’ concerns and desires, whether through dialogue, storyboarding, collage, or other methods. We shared case studies with the Panamanians and shared Deanna’s amazing Design Justice Designing Spaces toolkit with which they can further train and prepare themselves and the team they hire for the project in the workshop methodology. (The Toolkit is freely available to all thanks to the Fetzer Institute – feel free to download your own copy.)
Second, and perhaps of even greater value, was the opportunity to demonstrate and enact dignity and respect between the prison department, prison guards, and the people in their custody through the design process itself. It is simply not respectful to force adults to live or work in a space that they have no control over and not even to ask them if there are simple changes that might make the place more palatable. So by asking everyone in the prison what they would like in the space, we were proposing a way to realize the dignified, respectful treatment that he vice minister hopes will become the new norm. In addition to design workshops at the programming and schematic design phases, we further recommended that they follow up by having their design team present the outcome of each phase to the user groups. After all, if the goal is to show respect, it’s not enough to ask someone’s opinion – you have to incorporate their input, or else it’s just a hollow exercise.
Deanna and I are both believers in the power of design to create better spaces and places, but we are just as much believers in the importance of the design process in getting to those better spaces and places. Whether it is the “integrative design process” being advanced by the newest version of the LEED rating system, or the more unusual process of going into a prison to hear from people inside about how to make safer, more dignified, and healthier spaces, the value lies not only in the destination, but in the journey itself.
This post is a copy of the Jan 6th update to supporters of our petition to the AIA.
The American Institute of Architects has responded to our petition, rejecting our proposal to strengthen the human rights standard of the AIA Code of Ethics by prohibiting the design of spaces intended to violate human rights, especially execution chambers and spaces intended for torture, including prison spaces intended for prolonged solitary confinement. AIA's response (which you can see on the ADPSR website) is full of legalisms and smokescreen arguments but between the lines it boils down to some unfortunate observations about the Institute: AIA places business interests above human rights, AIA is afraid of offending people who approve of torture and killing, and AIA cannot or will not educate the profession or the broader public about how architects can and should help uphold human rights. We are truly disappointed in the cowardice of AIA, which claims to be a "leadership" organization and the "voice of the architectural profession."
ADPSR President Raphael Sperry penned a powerful op-ed on CNN.com in response to AIA's letter that tied their position to the recent revelations in the US Senate's Torture Report; it was one of CNN’s top 20 stories the day it ran. He wrote, “The unwillingness of American's leading architectural association to prohibit the design of torture facilities is a shocking, shameful and deeply troubling statement. It refuses to place any limit on the potential role of design in human rights violations, even the most egregious.”
With regards to the death penalty, it is equally shocking and troubling to imagine that architects who design spaces intended to kill other people are welcome in the world’s largest professional association for architects. As AIA put it in their letter, “The AIA Code of Ethics should not exist to create limitations on the practice by AIA members of specific building types.” Really – not even gas chambers? The Nazi regime’s crematoria were technically somewhat complex buildings that were designed by architects, much as the rest of the Nazi genocide program was managed by technical experts. Israel’s Holocaust research center Yad Vashem has some of the design drawings on file. Even though the Nazi genocide was done before the establishment of the current international human rights system, we all wish that average Germans had had more direction about how to resist the horrors that their own government was enrolling them in. AIA’s Code of Ethics is an ideal place to enshrine this kind of civil society governance and shared commitment to the public good, and ADPSR presented AIA with an excellent opportunity to do the right thing. Instead, they indicated a future willingness to look the other way no matter what AIA members do in the practice of architecture.
Despite this disappointing outcome, ADPSR's campaign for human rights has hardly been in vain. We received over 2,000 signatures in support of our petition to AIA; AIA chapters in San Francisco, Boston, and Portland, Ore. endorsed our campaign; and we earned letters of support from such human rights stalwarts as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, ACLU, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. We mounted an exhibition of the design of spaces that violate human rights at UC Berkeley and it is available to travel to other destinations (please contact us if you are interested in helping mount the exhibition in your city or university). While in their first response AIA was not prepared to take a leadership position on human rights, history shows that progress is possible over time. A future AIA Board of Directors may well reconsider, and the door of human rights - of tolerance, equality, and peace - will always be open.
Thank you for standing with ADPSR!
After working for over a year soliciting and sourcing material, it's exciting to be able to announce that ADPSR's exhibit "Sentenced: Architecture and Human Rights" is open at the Wurster Gallery at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design! The show highlights problematic and little-known spaces within United States prisons and detention centers that house activities deemed to violate human rights: execution chambers, supermax prisons, and juvenile isolation cells.
Do these spaces provide for an appropriate punishment for unacceptable behavior, or are they themselves part of the problem? Visitors will have a chance to see rarely available documentation including architectural plans of execution chambers, drawings from people held in solitary isolation, and photographs of the interiors of juvenile detention centers. What do these extreme spaces of containment have to teach us about the state of freedom in our broader American society?
We had an excellent opening night where a capacity crowd turned out to hear a panel featuring journalist and solitary confinement survivor Sarah Shourd, UC Berkeley architecture professor Jill Stoner -- one of the leaders of the campus-wide "Prison course -- and ADPSR President Raphael Sperry.
Congratulations to curator and correspondent extraordinaire Lisbet Portman; thanks to our contributors, who opened a window into a hidden and dangerous world; and thanks to our sponsors, who helped to spread the word about the opening event, provided refreshments, and provided the large-format printing for the exhibition materials:
Earlier today, the ADPSR national board of directors sent a 15-page letter to AIA detailing our proposal to prohibit the design of execution chambers and spaces for prolonged solitary confinement. Since AIA's working group responding to the human rights proposal ADPSR is advancing won't meet with us, we had to write down our entire argument and respond to potential counter-arguments in advance.
You can see the entire letter here -- hope you find it convincing!
ADPSR launched our first crowdfunding campaign earlier this week to support our work on human rights and the AIA Code of Ethics. ADPSR does much of its operations on a volunteer basis, with members who feel passionately about our issues joining the national board of directors, working with board members on volunteer committees, or starting local area chapters. Our Northern California group, for instance, pulled off the Building Envelope Solutions Showcase on a volunteer basis, with the fees charge to vendors and attendees offsetting the costs of renting the space and running the event.
For the AIA Ethics and Human Rights campaign (which I direct), much of the work was accomplished thanks to the Soros Justice Fellowship I received in 2012 from the Open Society Foundations. The 18 month Fellowship gave me a full-time opportunity to do the research, development, and outreach needed to investigate this issue,address it, and engage with AIA. But unlike much of ADPSR's other work, significant expenses lie ahead: travel and printing costs are the largest items. So it seemed like a good time to ask for support from ADPSR's members and our broader community of supporters.
like any good crowdfunding campaign, we have a two-minute video
By coincidence, just a few weeks ago we were approached by WhyDidX, a new venture aiming to tie crowdsourced funding for innovative human rights projects to news gathering and distribution. The chance to work together was too good to ignore, and the campaign is on. Please take a moment to check it out, support ADPSR, and learn about our partner WhyDidX: http://www.whydidx.com/raphael-sperry/
The question about better prison design often takes two different forms: can a “better” prison design improve conditions for people in prison, or can it improve the US prison system? One way we see a concern for the collection of individual, the other way for the broader notion of society. (It’s kind of like how anthropology approaches a question versus sociology.)
Given that ADPSR is for “social responsibility” perhaps it’s no surprise that I favor the question about society and the prisons system’s impacts on it. Many architects who design prisons and jails take more the individual view, working to improve individual conditions. In the particular case of the US prison system, I think the broader social analysis is a necessary prerequisite for contextualizing the individual experiences of people within in, but in general these views aren’t inherently in conflict – we are all individuals and we all live with others. There is truth in both anthropology and sociology (unless of course you are Margaret Thatcher, who famously claimed “there is no such thing as society” while she set about dismantling programs meant to sustain it).
Architectural design often concerns itself most directly with the level of individual experience, with much of architecture school training devoted to thinking through how the shaping of space and manipulation of materiality will create effects on building occupants. But architecture also operates just as powerfully at the social scale, and concern about the social impacts of architecture have grown in recent years. Certainly the growth in green building looks at the responsibility that the building industry has beyond individual experiences – impacts on our climate, air, water, forests, and so on, and on public health – which has always been a social, rather than an individual, concern. The social impacts is also what the current attention on urbanism is all about. Urbanists demand that a building not only serve the needs of its occupants but also contribute to the public life of its city by shaping streets and public spaces that fall in between buildings, managing its impact on pedestrians and other traffic flows, and having positive impacts outside its property line.
Urbanism is now asking how buildings contribute to the larger city they are part of; ADPSR asks how prisons contribute to the larger system and society they are part of. That’s probably why our critique of how badly broken the prison system – and how individual architectural accomplishments can’t solve it – resonates with over 1,500 people who have signed our petition. Don’t forget to join them: http://www.tinyurl.com/aiaethics.
As part of ADPSR's campaign to ban the design of spaces intended to violate human rights, we thought that we should help to educate design professionals and the public about what those spaces are like. Accordingly, ADPSR will be holding an exhibition at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design this October - November on the design of execution chambers and spaces of solitary confinement. It will have an online presence and may travel to other venues as we develop the project, so stayed tuned.
But first, to succeed, we need drawings! These could be measured drawings of a cell, hallway, pod, rec yard, or other part of a prison, or more lifelike drawings of interior spaces, or any other format. We would appreciate a short description (no more than 200 words) of the space and your experience being forced to live in it.
Who may participate: People who are currently being held in solitary confinement or have been in the past are especially encouraged to submit their work.
Please include a statement permitting ADPSR to reproduce and publish your work. If you do not wish your name to be used, let us know if you would like it included anonymously or under a pseudonym.
Send artwork and any questions to:
PO Box 9126
Berkeley, CA 94709
*Work will be accepted until May 30, 2014. Late submissions may be included on the website.
**Art advocating for violence will not be displayed.
ADPSR recently received a question about worker safety from a member, and ADPSR Board Member Shawn Hesse responded in great detail. We thought it was worth sharing here:
Q: What can architects do to protect workers on the construction sites of their projects? Can construction site operations specifications be written that help to protect them? Finally, is there a Social Responsibilty Index (like LEED for Sustainability) that can help promote this on-site? I am thinking about international projects mostly.
A: This is a great question, and there are many organizations working to develop an answer.
In the US, our specifications are written around the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) workplace safety requirements. You can access the full requirements here. They govern everything from construction to hazardous waste management to hospital workers. Typically, our architectural specifications put the burden of compliance with these regulations onto the contractor, but in some instances, things like fall protection systems are specified and detailed in the design documents.
Other resources exist as well – The International Labour Organization has more than 40 jobsite safety standards, The National Safety Council offers training and educational resources for developing jobsite safety management systems, and the AFL-CIO are all great places to start.
While most of these represents the minimum legal requirements for worker protection, there are other efforts that can be taken. I co-authored a series of social indicators for construction projects (find them here), and you are welcome to use them as a beginning framework. (If you do, I would love to hear your feedback - use the comments below!) There are other programs such as LEED, SEED Network, and Living Building Challenge that are all starting to raise the profile of these types of issues as well.
ADPSR's work was discussed at the California legislature on 10/10/13. We are making an impact! You can see the entire hearing at this link - http://www.calchannel.com/recent-archive/ (see Joint Informational Hearing on Segregation Policies in California Prisons). This clip is at 1:40:40.
You can also see just the clip at ADPSR's new Facebook page for our Ethics & Human Rights campaign: https://www.facebook.com/ADPSRArchitects. While you are there, "like" the page to stay updated on the campaign.
The hearing itself was a significant outcome of the hunger strike by prisoners in solitary confinement in California earlier this year. The committee leaders spoek repeatedbly about new legislation to curb solitary confinement in the state's prisons, given decades of inaction by the Corrections department. It was a rare joint session between the state Assembly and Senate public safety committees, indicating its importance.
This is what Margaret Winter of the ACLU National Prison Project said: “Many major national non-governmental organizations are now involved in the challenge to solitary confinement ... an effort is underway to amend the American Institute of Architects’ Code of Ethics to prohibit the design of facilities intended for prolonged solitary confinement."
At the recent conference of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice in Portland, OR, a week ago, about 20 AAJ members held an discussion on the topic of ethics, human rights, and justice design. AAJ is the unit of AIA where designers of courthouses, police stations, jails, and prisons gather for information exchange and networking. While not granting ADPSR the panel we requested to present our campaign, after some back and forth they did help us to hold an informal conversation at the conference. Both ADPSR Board Member Deanna van Buren and I attended, and it was quite an intense and focused discussion. Certainly not all AAJ members agreed with our proposal to prohibit the design of execution chambers or spaces intended for torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, including prolonged solitary confinement. In this post, I will summarize the rationale for the change I presented to the AAJ group. In the following post, which might be more interesting if you are already familiar with ADPSR’s proposal, I summarize the responses to participants in the conversation.
Special thanks to Prof. Keramet Reiter and Rev. Whitney Edwards who attended this conversation as guests of mine. They provided great moral support, knowledge, and guidance to the conversation.
So to begin, here is a summary of the initial presentation:
I started off by applauding AIA for having on our current code the following: Ethics Standard 1.4: Human Rights:
Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.
This is something we can be proud of. However, it is not an enforceable “Rule” of the Code, and the only enforceable rule related to human rights prohibits discrimination in hiring – a worthy issue, but certainly not the total scope of how human rights relate to architectural practice. In fact, some building projects violate human rights and should be addressed here. I argued that AIA can and should do more for human rights, and that it is an opportunity for AIA to demonstrate leadership in an area of broad public concern, joining other prominent professions. The architectural profession collectively is responsible for the design of the built environment and must use our position to protect the public’s health, safety, and wellbeing from buildings that violate human rights.
I shared a handout that included the following points:
Good for Architects and for AIA:
- Recent AIA Ethics Code amendments promoting environmental sustainability and pro bono practice reaffirm architects’ responsibility to the public. Strengthening our human rights standard will continue this positive trend.
- The American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Nurses Association, and many other professional associations all already have ethics codes prohibiting participation in executions, torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. AIA should join them.
- This amendment will support designers who want to design more humane environments for people in prison by protecting them from being undercut by others who are willing to meet client demands for abusive spaces.
- This proposal is not retroactive. It does not penalize or “blame” architects who designed these facilities in the past.
- “Improvements” to these building types are not necessary or reasonable. There is no “better” way to design a room intended to kill or degrade someone.
Supports Human Rights:
- International Human Rights NGOs and the U.N. have called for the end of the death penalty repeatedly from 1968 until today.
- The U.S. has 37 U.S. Death Rows that have completed over >2,000 executions since 1976.
- In 2012, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture defined solitary confinement of juveniles, the mentality ill, or anyone else in excess of 15 days as a form of torture or other prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. We should respond to this change.
- There are 45 dedicated “supermax” prisons in the U.S. holding ~20,000 people in prolonged solitary confinement. The typical cell is 7’ x 12’. The average detention is 5 years or longer in some states but the longest detention is over 40 years. Youth and the mentally ill are routinely held in solitary confinement across the U.S.
- Prolonged solitary confinement (i.e. over 15 days) causes profound and irreversible psychological damage, because the human psyche needs social interaction and environmental stimulation to maintain its basic stability. Frequent symptoms of solitary confinement include severe hallucinations, uncontrollable rage, depression, anxiety, and decompensation. While around 4% of prisoners are kept in solitary confinement, around 50% of all prison suicides occur in solitary.
I also pointed out that ADPSR has received endorsements for our proposal from a large and growing group of human rights and design organizations. Endorsers include Amnesty International and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (which represented over 800 congregations of many faiths concerned about the use of solitary confinement; one Episcopal Reverend joined our conversation as a guest ), and DesignCorps, which runs the Public Interest Design Institute. In addition, ADPSR has organized an online petition that has received over 1,000 signatures, many from architects.
For reference, the specific proposal ADPSR is recommending is the following. I encouraged AAJ members to share thoughts on potential edits that would improve the quality of the proposal.
Proposed Rule 1.402:
Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.
The Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibit “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (ICCPR Article 7) and ICCPR also requires that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person” (Article 10). Prolonged solitary confinement has been identified as a form of torture or prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United Nations Human Rights Council, Committee Against Torture, and the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Please see Part 2 of this entry for the conversation that followed -- I get called "inflammatory" in public!
(thanks to Catherine Chan, AIA, and a member of the AAJ Advisory Group for the pictures of the conversation in process)