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Is It Ethical for Architects to Build Solitary Confinement Cells?

Activists say no, but the industry's Code of Ethics says yes.

by Whitney Mallett
Jan 7 2015, 3:30pm

​Image: Shutterstock

​Yesterday, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) refused to condemn torture by design.

For more than two years, activists have been lobbying the professional association to update its Code of Ethics in order to address spaces that are built to degrade, torture, or kill people.

Raphael Sperry, an architect and the founder of Architects/​Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), was leading the fight to get the AIA to take a stance against spaces like solitary confinement cells and execution chambers.

Right now, the Code of Ethic​s addresses issues such as non-discrimination, preservation of cultural history and the environment, and assigning proper credit for work. The Code actually does mention human rights: "Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors," but does not specify situations where this would apply.

In ​a letter received yesterday, however, AIA President Helene Combs Dreiling wrote that "the AIA Code of Ethics should not exist to create limitations on the practice by AIA members of specific building types. The AIA Code of Ethics is more about desirable practices and attitudes than condemnation."

Sperry noted that in other fields there is a precedent for what ADPSR was demanding. "Doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses all have codes of ethics that limit professional complicity in human rights abuses that include torture and killing," he said in response to the AIA's letter.

For example, The American Medical Association's (AMA) Code of​ Ethics states that "physicians must oppose and must not participate in torture for any reason" and its prohibitions include providing services or knowledge that "facilitates the practice of torture." While neither the AMA or the American Psychologists Association (APA) have formally acknow​ledged violations of human rights in prisons with practices like extended solitary confinement, there has been deb​ate about the role psychologists had in developing post-911 Bush-era interrogation techniques and having an ethic​al code that prohibits torture allows the APA a standard by which to judge the rightness of psychologists' participation.

Sperry wasn't the only one who felt disappointed that the AIA didn't want to take a leading role in preventing the construction of spaces, like solitary confinement and execution chambers, that he believes enable human rights abuses.

"When it comes to light that architects are knowingly being employed to design spaces for the execution and torture of human beings, the role of a professional organization should be to prevent further abuses," explained ADPSR Vice President Lynne Elizabeth. "This is a duty that must have a higher priority than business concerns."

Prisons are some of the worst offenders of human rights in America, but also a big​ industry and a money-maker for architecture firms. In California alone, a new prison is built​ every year. Fear of losing some of these contracts is likely the reason the AIA refuses to prohibit their professional members from building spaces that inherently violate human rights.

"It is disappointing to me that the AIA is apparently more concerned about potential impact to architecture firm fees than they are about human rights," said Boston-based architect Shawn Hesse, who is also a board member of the ADPSR, the group lobbying the AIA to make changes.

When Motherboard talked to Sperry last summer, he explained that having the Code of Ethics prohibit these sorts of buildings would take the burden away from individuals firms of having to choose between losing money and building violent spaces: "If one or two companies say, 'We are not going to design prisons that violate human rights,' those guys are going to go out of business and the product will still be built. It's important to take a collective stance."

Sperry's work has focused around the human rights abuses that occur in prisons. Solitary confinement cells, especially the highly automated ones being designed for supermax facilities, and execution chambers are the spaces that the ADPSR see as most frequently violating human rights. Numero​us studies have documented that solitary confinement has drastic debilitatin​g effects on mental health. While only 4 percent of prisoners in America are in solitary confinement, that 4 percent of the population makes up half of prison suicides.

"Humans are social animals," explained Sperry. "Human psychology requires interaction with other people to develop a basic sense of self. If you are denied social contact, your mind falls apart and suicide is one of the consequences."

While the ADPSR's efforts to change the AIA Code of Ethics have failed, Sperry has succeeded in starting a conversation about the ethics of designing these spaces and the role a professional organization has in regulating its member architects, as well as to inform people of the human cost of these designs. "If people are unaware, they can't try to change it," said Sperry in June. "Part of our goal is to raise awareness."

While he continues to raise aw​areness, the AIA's rejection of ADPSR's proposed changes was a blow to Sperry. "AIA calls itself a 'leadership' organization, it claims that members make decisions in the public interest, and that it stands for architecture improving our communities and our world. Well, human rights is a core part of the better world that we all hope to live in, and AIA just rejected that," he said yesterday. "This decision is a complete sellout."