In presenting the AIA Code of Ethics reform to AIA leaders, members, and others, ADPSR has encountered many questions and concerns. We invite you to think through the issues with us here.


What is AIA?

AIA is the American Institute of Architects, the mainstream professional organization for architects – similar to the Bar Association for lawyers, or the American Medical Association for doctors. AIA has about 80,000 members, representing about three quarters of all licensed architects in the United States.

Is there any precedent for citing sources outside of AIA in the AIA Code of Ethics?

The current (2012) AIA Code of Ethics refers to federal, state, and local laws; the federal Copyright Act; campaign financing laws; court and regulatory agency findings; and building codes. All of these are standards maintained by groups outside of AIA.

Do architects really design spaces for execution or solitary confinement?

Yes. In all 50 states major buildings intended primarily for human habitation require a design prepared and stamped by a licensed architect. Prisons are not excepted. Some architecture firms advertise their experience designing supermax prisons. The most recent execution-related project ADSPR is aware of is the State of California’s rebuild of its execution chamber in 2010. The most recent supermax prisons completed were Colorado’s Centennial Correctional Facility in 2010 and the U.S. Navy’s Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility Camp 6, in 2006.

What is solitary confinement?

Supermax prisons are buildings specifically designed for long term solitary isolation. Psychological research has shown that solitary confinement beyond fifteen days leads directly to severe and irreversible psychological harm. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has stated that the level of psychological harm caused by solitary confinement over fifteen days rises to the level of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

In the United States there are scores of highly specialized buildings holding tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement on any given day. Their housing has many names in different places, such as Security Housing Unit, Special Management Unit, Administrative Segregation, “Seg,” Lockdown, and “the Hole.” They are confined to cells typically  6’ x’ 10’ for 23 hours per day, with one hour spent in a high-wall, barren concrete outdoor “yard” only twice the size of the cell. Almost all situations for human contact such as guard, medical or family visits are conducted through metal mesh, behind glass partitions, or in hand- and leg-cuffs. People in solitary are held on average for five years, and there are thousands of cases of people who have been held in solitary confinement for decades.  People are held in solitary confinement in federal and state prisons and even in local jails. We use the term “supermax” to refer to prison or jail buildings, or portions of buildings, intended for long term solitary confinement.

Rationales for Solitary Confinement

The reasons given for placing people in solitary vary: for “disciplinary reasons” such as breaking prison rules, or for “administrative reasons” such as interrupting ostensible gang communications, protecting other prisoners, or to separate the prisoner from others who would threaten him or her. Many prison officials state that solitary confinement is used sparingly and reserved for “the worst of the worst.” This is simply not true. Many if not most people in solitary confinement suffered from mental illness prior to their placement in solitary; responding to their disruptive behavior is not only a failure of the prison mental health systems to provide minimally required care, but also exacerbates their conditions and typically leads to even worse problems. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that placing mentally ill individuals in solitary confinement is a constitutional violation, but the practice is still widespread as most mentally ill prisoners cannot effectively seek court relief.  (Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has refused to rule it unconstitutional to keep someone in solitary confinement who has become mentally ill due to that experience, which happens frequently.) Outside of mental illness, many disciplinary cases sent to solitary are for no good reason. In New York State, for example, individuals have been punished with solitary time for infractions including improper disposal of chewing gum, keeping more than the allowed quantity of postage stamps in their personal property, or failing to end a conversation when ordered by a prison guard.

Ending Design of Solitary Confinement

Whatever the rationale advanced for solitary confinement, ADPSR does not believe that any reason is acceptable for torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. As prison authorities currently hold shockingly broad authority over prison conditions (no one is actually sentenced to solitary confinement: conditions of confinement are determined within the prison system after sentencing), they also have the responsibility to manage their facilities without engaging in human rights abuses. At least six U.S. states do not use long term solitary confinement; the other states and the Federal government should follow suit. ADPSR believes that by ending the design of spaces specifically intended for long term solitary confinement, AIA and the architectural profession can help our governments to implement these necessary reforms.

What is solitary confinement like?

The experience of prolonged solitary isolation is profoundly disturbing to all who experience it. In supermax prisons, prisoners are kept in their cells for 22 – 23 hours per day (or for 24 hours under some circumstances), with a typical cell size around 7’ x 10’. One or two hours per day are allowed for individual exercise in a small, high-walled concrete yard considered “outdoors” and a shower every few days. Prisoners can sometimes hear other prisoners in the same cell pod shouting through cell fronts (which are commonly made of perforated metal), but many have stated that the noise from mentally ill cellmates yelling into the pod hall does not provide relief from the silence and lack of visual stimulation. Many supermax cells do not contain windows, while those that do are often positioned to allow no direct view of anything but empty sky.

The most modern supermaxes use automated doors so that prisoners can go between these activities without having to encounter prison guards. Guards deliver meals, mail, or other items through a slot in the cell door up to three times a day. Common other restrictions on prisoners in supermax include no or very few phone calls (sometimes one per month or less), a strictly limited number of books and personal possessions allowed in the cell, and no choice of diet.

Social interaction is essential to human basic mental health. Psychologists have documented that typical supermax conditions produce extreme symptoms including acute confusional psychosis, massive anxiety, paranoia, impulse dyscontrol, random violence, and hallucinations. People who are mentally ill and young people, whose mental capacities are still developing, suffer worse effects much faster when placed in isolation. While almost every architectural project aims to provide spaces for human activities in groups, like eating, working, playing, etc., supermax prisons are among the only buildings specifically designed to prevent group activities of any kind.

The American Bar Association publishes standards for prison conditions. As ABA’s testimony to the U.S. Senate stated:

The Standards forbid in all instances “extreme isolation,” which is defined to “include a combination of sensory deprivation, lack of contact with other persons, enforced idleness, minimal out - of - cell time, and lack of outdoor recreation.” (23-3.8). In short, while it may be necessary physically to separate prisoners who pose a threat to others, that separation does not necessitate the social and sensory isolation that has become routine.

This is a personal moral issue, not a question of professional ethics?

Let’s remember that “upholding human rights” is already in the AIA Code of Ethics. The human rights standard currently only has one rule within it, regarding employment discrimination. While important, employment discrimination is not the only area where architects might find themselves with human rights concerns, especially in light of the international criticism of execution chambers and supermax prisons in the United States on human rights grounds. AIA members deserve more detailed guidance on how they can reconcile client requests for those project types with a generalized responsibility to uphold human rights.

To consider one precedent, the American Medical Association specifically separates professional participation in executions (and torture) from personal moral decisions. The AMA Code of Ethics says:

An individual’s opinion on capital punishment is the personal moral decision of the individual. A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution. Physician participation in execution is defined generally as actions which would fall into one or more of the following categories: (1) an action which would directly cause the death of the condemned; (2) an action which would assist, supervise, or contribute to the ability of another individual to directly cause the death of the condemned; (3) an action which could automatically cause an execution to be carried out on a condemned prisoner. (emphasis added)

Clearly, AMA thinks that professional ethics include defining the responsibilities of licensed professions to protect the public, which is quite different from taking a poll of doctors to see how many oppose capital punishment. In the same vein, the California Medical Association “believes that physician participation in capital punishment threatens the public's trust in physicians. ADPSR believes that public trust in architects will be enhanced if the public knows we will not design buildings intended to execute, torture, or degrade anyone.

ADPSR’s AIA Code of Ethics reform proposal will open the door to AIA banning other types of buildings in the future that some groups don’t like. What will be next: animal research laboratories, nuclear power plants, buildings with excessive carbon emissions, abortion clinics…?

If setting the precedent for AIA to prohibit member participation in unpopular building types was part of this proposal, ADPSR would not have advanced it. However, this proposal is a human rights rule, not a (un)popularity contest. This proposed ethics rule does not require or even suggest that AIA would prohibit design of any other building type, because the examples of buildings being designed with the intent of violating human rights are so rare and so specific. Establishing that an intended activity is a violation of human rights is a very high standard. This proposal cites the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as interpreted 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. These international bodies do not have positions against activities common to any other building type, nor will they in the forseeable future. Similarly, the American Medical Association position prohibiting doctors from participating in executions, now over three decades old, has not led to a cascade of other prohibited procedures. We do not anticipate that AIA’s position proposed here will, either.

With regards to abortion clinics in particular, we recognize the importance of this concern. AIA, and architects generally, should never be complicit in plans to deny women access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion. Our proposed amendment would not have this outcome.

More generally, the U.N. human rights system treats women’s reproductive rights as a positive part of human rights (for instance, in saying that everyone has the right to determine the number and spacing of their children). The U.N.’s World Health Organization has published guidance on providing safe abortions for national health systems based on a foundation of international human rights treaties. Many U.N. bodies view anti-abortion laws that lead to thousands of women’s deaths in unsafe abortions every year as potential human rights violations, and is heading towards ever broader recognition of abortion rights as part of human rights overall. Using human rights as the standard in the Code of Ethics protects AIA from entering a “slippery slope” that might ever lead to restrictions on abortion clinics or other building types.

How many buildings would this really change?

The AIA’s Ethics Code is only applicable to the design of new buildings and this rule, if adopted, would not be retroactive. Typically no more than one adult supermax facility or execution chamber is proposed each year, and in some years none at all. (However, some juvenile detention spaces contain some areas for segregated holding that would need to be reviewed to ensure that there is no intent to hold juveniles in unacceptable conditions of isolation.) The current 50 or so supermax prisons (and smaller areas of prisons dedicated to solitary confinement), 37 or so execution chambers, and existing juvenile facilities would not be changed directly by this policy.

This rule would also not apply to the design of new conventional prisons. Prisoners in conventional prisons have “dayrooms,” shared outdoor exercise yards, and other opportunities to have a level of social interaction that can maintain their mental health. While ADPSR believes strongly that the U.S. prison system is far too large – with a per-capita incarceration rate eight to ten times that of other developed countries --  and grossly unjust towards the poor and racial minorities – with African-Americans making up 40% of the prison population but only 13% of the general population, and only 1% of the architectural profession – this measure only addresses the specific and serious human rights abuses associated with execution chambers and the use of solitary confinement.

What will this ethics code amendment achieve if implemented?

The maximum sanction under AIA’s Code of Ethics is expulsion from the organization, which is a voluntary membership (architectural licenses are granted by State boards). AIA membership is valuable to most architecture firms, so it’s unlikely that anyone would give up their AIA membership in order to pursue a very rare project type. Nor does ADPSR want to see AIA members ejected using this provision. Instead, we believe that architects’ refusal to design these spaces would be a powerful way to reduce human rights violations in the United States.

Just as significantly, U.S. constitutional claims about the “cruel and unusual” nature of solitary confinement rely on showing an “evolving standard of decency” that no longer finds the practice acceptable. AIA’s position would be a significant demonstration of an evolution in the standards of decency in prison design and could eventually lead to a widespread reduction in human rights violations in existing prisons in the United States.

Won’t other people design these buildings if architects refuse?

An important precedent here again is that the American Medical Association code of ethics prohibits doctors from participating in executions and torture in any way. The refusal of doctors has caused delays in the ability of some states to carry out legally ordered executions. One doctor who had actually performed executions said that if he had known about the AMA position, “I never would have gotten involved.” By extension, AIA’s position matters.

With regard to architecture, the larger firms that are prepared to design complex “supermax” prisons are generally AIA member firms, and they typically offer many other kinds of prison designs. We think that they would be in a much stronger position to assist their justice system clients in making sure their projects do not violate human rights standards with this ethics code amendment in place. We hope they would not want to risk their good standing in AIA in order to pursue the tiny number of projects that are so harsh that they draw the condemnation of the international human rights community.

Won’t the design of these buildings be worse if AIA architects refuse?

Simply put, there isn’t much room for “worse” conditions in the design of an execution chamber.

Regarding solitary confinement, this ethics proposal would provide architects with the ground to stand on so they could work with their clients who ask for “supermax” prisons about alternative ways to provide security without violating human rights. In the longer term, this ethical position by AIA could be a way to improve prison conditions through de-legitimizing the use of solitary confinement.

What is the alternative to building these structures?

The alternative to not executing people is having them serve long sentences. European countries tend to have maximum sentences of 30-40 years (even for the most horrific crimes); in the U.S. we tend to have life sentences and in some states life without parole.

The alternative to supermax prisons is managing difficult inmates in more conventional maximum-security prisons that allow for enough congregate activity to sustain psychological well-being. The fact that you can run a prison system without resorting to long-term solitary confinement is well established: prior to the 1980s, it was the norm in the U.S. What has changed is not the violent propensity of our prisoners but the social attitude towards them. Even today, about six states have no supermaxes at all and don't have problems with their prison systems. States that have recently closed their supermax prisons, including Maine and Mississippi, have found that overall levels of violence in their prison systems fell.

International human rights standards also demand that juveniles and the mentally ill should never be kept in solitary confinement, period. For these especially vulnerable populations, the harmful impacts of solitary confinement occur much faster, with greater severity, and may be irreversibly life-altering. There are many places where difficult and even violent youth are handled with safety and respect but without solitary confinement. The risk that solitary confinement will be overused when it is available to the operators of juvenile detention facilities is simply too great to provide space for the practice. See, for example, the use of so-called “reflection cottages” at a youth facility in Colorado, where kids were kept in windowless rooms for weeks at a time. Who thought it was a good idea to build those as part of a juvenile facility, and did they consider the human rights implications? Because the damage to those youth may be irreversible, we can only wish that the designers had known at the time the tragic outcomes we now expect today. We must work now to ensure that designers of juvenile facilities in the future will be better informed through the AIA Code of Ethics.