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What the Prison Hunger Strikes Mean for an Architect: There Are Some Buildings that Never Should Have Been Built

Raphel Sperry,
Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility
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July 12, 2013

From Guantanamo Bay to California’s Pelican Bay, thousands of prisoners are on hunger strike, protesting intolerable living conditions, solitary confinement, and indefinite detention. As an architect and leader of Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), it certainly got my attention when these prisoners said, in effect, that they’d rather die than go on living in these buildings.

Frankly, there are some buildings that never should have been built – buildings that constitute human rights violations by their very existence. The prisons at Guantanamo Bay are clear examples. From their inception, it should have been clear to everyone involved in the design and construction that the prisons were intended for activities that would violate prisoners’ rights – why else would they be located in a remote area with water-only access, no local building industry, and excessively high construction costs if not for the legal fiction that Guantanamo is a constitution-free zone? It wasn’t to take advantage of the tropical climate: the designs used were repeats of federal facilities from Indiana. The CIA’s “black site” would be on the same list – that is, if anyone was allowed to know where all these “interrogation centers” are, what they all look like, or who designed them all.

Prisons intended for prolonged solitary confinement should also never be built. Why? In 2011 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez stated that solitary confinement should never be used on juveniles or the mentally ill at all, and never for more than 15 days on anyone else: it is a form of torture or prohibited cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. You could make the case that in a small county jail or typical medium security prison you would include cells for solitary isolation and never keep anyone in them for more than 15 days – although I’d be very careful with prison authorities promising to hold themselves to humane standards – but a large supermax prison is a completely different case.

California’s Pelican Bay State Prison (where the current hunger strike largely originated) has 1,024 cells intended for isolation. Its cell doors operate by remote control so that prisoners do not need to have human contact to access the shower or “outdoor” yard they are allowed for one hour a day. In the California prison system, where it takes weeks just to classify an incoming prisoner, the idea that a thousand men could be cycled through Pelican Bay every fifteen days just is not credible. The place was intended for prolonged confinement, and it shows. Even though the original plan was to hold people for no more than 18 months, some men have been inside since the facility opened in 1989. Sadly, Pelican Bay was the model for dozens of state and federal facilities that followed it.

Execution chambers are another structure that simply should not be designed any more. Architects are governed by state-level professional codes that generally require us to protect public “health, safety, and welfare” in our work. You would think that promising occupants that the building they are in was not intended to kill them would be the least we could do towards that standard, but that has not been the case. The American Medical Association prohibits its members from participating in capital punishment in any way. So ADPSR asks: if doctors will not serve as executioners, why should architects?

ADPSR recently began a campaign to ask our mainstream professional association, the American Institute of Architects, to ban the design of execution chambers and prisons intended for solitary confinement. The determination of prisoners today to change their conditions or risk death reinforces our resolve to make those changes, so that in the future these human rights violations can be avoided. I would not want to have designed the buildings that violate prisoners’ human rights, and I hope no one has to die in them before their torture stops.

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