Dec 11, 201301:49 PMPoint of View

Q&A: Raphael Sperry on the Architecture of Incarceration

Q&A: Raphael Sperry on the Architecture of Incarceration

San Quentin State Prison, the site of California's execution chamber. Pictured is the final build-out of a 2007-2010 project to rebuild the "lethal injection chamber" there, one of the 57 death chambers in use in the United States.

Courtesy California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

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For this month’s issue, we reached out to design critics and asked them to pick a project, product or idea from 2013 that they thought would have lasting impact in the future. Interestingly, Mark Lamster, the architecture critic at the Dallas Morning News, nominated the anti-incarceration campaign currently being waged by Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSP). Led by San Francisco-based architect Raphael Sperry, ADPSP's goal is to prevent architects from entering into the business of designing spaces "for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” We recently reached out to Sperry to get an update on ADPSP's ongoing effort.

Martin C. Pedersen: What are you specifically trying to accomplish?  

Raphael Sperry: ADPSR is asking the AIA to change their Code of Ethics to prohibit the design of spaces intended for executions and prolonged solitary confinement, as in "supermax" prisons. This comes from the AIA's current code, which calls on members to "uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors"—but includes no enforceable rules to provide discipline if someone designs something intended to violate human rights. In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture defined solitary confinement as a human right violation if done to youth, the mentally ill, or anyone else for over 15 days. And of course intentionally killing people—even in a state-ordered execution—deprives people of their more fundamental human right: life itself.

This would put the architectural profession on the same level as all U.S. medical associations that prohibit their members' participation in executions, torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. It would also help to slow or halt the progress of specific projects that will injure or kill people, and at the broader level help to shift public perceptions of our justice system away from ever-harsher methods of punishment towards approaches that emphasize public safety and community restoration. On the legal level, for a currently accepted punitive practice to be found "cruel and unusual" courts must cite "an evolving standard of decency towards a mature society." If architects collectively say that we have reappraised the dozens of supermax prisons built in recent decades and that we won't build places like that any more—what could be a clearer evolution of decency than that? 

Interior of “Management Cell” (Cell 123) in EOP Administrative Segregation Unit (C-12) at MCSP (Bates MCSP 22)

From the Haney Declaration

MCP: What’s the current status of this effort?

RS: Earlier this year the AIA San Francisco chapter became the first chapter to formally endorse ADPSR's proposal. We have endorsements from Amnesty International, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the American Civil Liberties Union, and DesignCorps, among other groups. At present, about half a dozen AIA components are considering the issue. I'd like to encourage Metropolis readers who are AIA members and want to get their chapter involved to contact us to set up that conversation.

Our petition also has over 1,100 subscribers, and as the AIA hears from more architects, designers, and members of the public, that will help to build their comfort with taking this step. You don't have to be an AIA member or an architect to sign. (Do so here.)

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