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The Prison Crisis

Over the past twenty years, the prison population of the United States has grown seven-fold (700%), even though our total population has increased only 20% and our crime rate has decreased. With our total imprisoned population now over 2,000,000, we incarcerate more people per capita than any other country that publishes statistics on prisons, even Russia. The state of California alone has built 20 new prisons since 1980, with other states and the Federal government following suit.

Why are so many people in prison? In an atmosphere of fear, economic difficulties, and persistent racial divisions, prisons have become a popular "solution" to social ills. "Tough on crime" posturing by politicians has lowered the bar on what gets people into prison and how long they stay there, and has included vast expansions of prison space and law enforcement capacity. Meanwhile, social services, drug treatment, and good job opportunities have been downsized or lost, even though these approaches have consistently been shown to be the best way to reduce criminal activity, prevent repeat offenses, and improve people's chances for economic success. The increased separation between the haves and the have-nots is leading to a growing climate of fear, as documented in Michael Moore's Academy Award-winning film, "Bowling for Columbine." Regardless of how safe communities actually are, middle- and upper-class members of society feel their that security is threatened by stereotypical "criminal types" they do not know. Increased law enforcement and more draconian deterrents - military style "boot camps" for kids, super-maximum security prisons for adults-are offered as the answer. We are so far out of balance that in many states, prison spending now exceeds school spending and is growing even faster.

Additionally, the vast growth in spending on prisons has generated a group of corporations, government agencies, and allied organizations that constitute a "prison-industrial complex." Prison guards push for higher salaries, new facilities, new guidelines, and obstruct attempts to create accountability for their actions. Private prison operators lobby for new prison construction, privatization of prison operations under for-profit conditions, and laws that will throw more people behind bars for longer. In most instances these groups attempt to gain special influence over government decision-makers through campaign contributions, special perks, and personal connections. The policies favored by these groups disempower the already powerless-- poor people and people of color--, aiming to move them faster through justice and corrections departments and into prisons. These groups seem to believe that no prison will sit empty, as if their motto were 'if we build it, they will come.' In the face of these powerful industries that are deeply invested in expanding the prison complex, it is all the more important for architects to re-assess our role in the proliferation of prisons, and to speak up for justice.