Meet the Architect Who Wants to Build a More Humane Prison

Raphael Sperry is pushing for the shape and technologies of incarceration's future to embrace basic human rights.

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Jun 16 2014, 2:15pm
Presidio Modelo prison. Photo: Cuba/Wikimedia Commons

Prisons are arguably the worst human rights offenders in America, and business is booming. While other industries in the United States wane, the prison industry conitnues to grow. The number of incarcerated people in the US has quadrupled since 1980, and while America constitutes just five percent of the world’s population, it's home to about 25 percent of the world's prisoners, as The Economist reports

The numbers are head spinning, but what the stats obscure is the architecture and design industry that mass incarceration is built on. We rarely think about the people who design execution chambers and solitary confinement cells

Raphael Sperry wants to change that. Sperry is an architect, Soros justice fellow, and president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), and is pushing the American Institute of Architects to prohibit the design of spaces that inherently violate human rights in their code of ethics. The ADPSR launched a crowd-sourcing campaign on Sunday to raise funds and awareness about its work in making prison design more humane. The organization is also in the midst of collecting, from former and current inmates, drawings of the spaces they experienced solitary confinement within. These will be displayed in UC Berkley’s Wurster Hall Gallery in the fall. 

In short, Sperry wants the shape and technology of incarceration's future to embrace fundamental human rights. His work falls in a long line of institution reform, from one Candian architect's mission to build the psych ward of the future by ingesting LSD to more recent calls for using "mind jail" and psychoactive drugs to ease up prison overcrowding. Sperry and I discussed the cultural around prisons, punishment, and privatization in America, and what we can do about it. 

MOTHERBOARD: When did you get interested in this work involving prisons?

Sperry: I would trace it back to the Iraq war. I was very opposed to it. I was demonstrating but I was finding it very hard to connect with people on that issue. I wanted to find a way to talk to architects about violence as an instrument of social policy, and the war in Iraq was the big example of this. But I wanted to talk to architects about it so I wanted to talk about buildings. Prisons are buildings, and the more I learned about prisons, it seemed like a reason to talk to architects about that same violence.

Your efforts focus around two particular aspects of prison construction, execution chambers and the solitary confinement common in supermax prisons. Can you explain how extreme that isolation can be? When I think of solitary confinement I think of a medieval dungeon where only the hands come through a little slot for the food, but my understanding is that some of these cells today are automated and there isn’t even that much human contact.

Super Maximum is when it’s a standalone large building used for isolation. In more conventional prisons, they usually have a wing that they called administrative segregation, or ad-seg, which amounts to more or less the same treatment. You spend 23 hours a day in a concrete cell. Sometimes there is a small window that looks out onto a yard. The yard is bare and the wall is high enough that you can’t see the ground. So basically you just see a patch of sky.

There’s not always a window. If there isn’t a window then you have a door with a small window that opens into a bare metal or concrete hallway with a skylight in that hallway. That’s how the light gets into your cell. And, you can even have a solid steel cell.

The doors are equipped with a pass-through slot which is kind of like what’s in a bank teller. Through a solid wall, a tray can slide from one side to the other. Guards bring by your meals, medications, letters, and they put them in the tray and push them through. If you are ever going to leave the cell you put your hands in the tray and they cuff your hands. And there is another slot at ankle level so they can cuff your feet. All that can be done when you are still in your cell.

One hour a day, and sometimes less—honestly, the court judgements say the prisoners get one hour a day, five times a week, but there are many prisons where that doesn’t actually happen—the door opens and you are allowed down the hall to an outdoor recreation area, often a small yard with high concrete walls and a bare concrete ground. And in a lot of supermax prisons, the cell, the hallway, and the recreation yard—the dog run, as people call it—is automated by remote control, so you wouldn’t actually interact with anyone on your way there.

In a lot of supermax prisons, the cell, the hallway, and the recreation yard—the dog run, as people call it—is automated by remote control, so you wouldn’t actually interact with anyone on your way there.

What are the documented consequences of that sort of confinement?

One of the statistics I find the most shocking is that about four percent of prisoners are in solitary confinement. That’s not that much, but that four percent of prisoners make up half of prison suicides.

Humans are social animals. 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. People cut themselves. They smear their feces on the walls. They develop psychotic symptoms. It’s a dangerous and destructive thing to do.

It’s gotten so extreme that juveniles are being held in solitary confinement.

I know. And it shows a real lack of creativity in American institutions—like, we don’t know what to do. We are just going to lock them in a box. Confinement never makes anybody better or ready to deal with the problem they already had. Human rights groups say juveniles should never be in solitary.

Why even use solitary confinement then? It’s documented that it’s psychologically damaging. It’s also much more expensive to incarcerate people this way. Yet it seems it's becoming more and more common.

I think that there is a real urge for punishment in the view of justice of many Americans. It’s a pretty widespread view that punishment in and of itself is a good thing. That’s a pretty shortsighted view. Punishment usually fails to solve the problem that led you to do damaging things to begin with. I think supermax prisons and solitary confinement are an expression of that preference.

How do these extreme measures fit into the narrative of prisons becoming more and more privatized? Is there a relation?

I think there is a connection in American politics because right-wing movements tend to favor business interests and don’t want the government getting in the way of them making money, at whatever social cost is imposed on others, and they favor a kind of authoritarian "punishment-first" mentality. They don’t always go together but I’d say those two tendencies are very strong in the right wing. Prison privatization is the business aspect of the criminal justice system, and "tough on crime" is the cultural aspect. They often go together.

How does that affect architects if they are designing private or public prisons?

My understanding is that most private prison companies have their own in-house design groups. They tend to cherry pick the easiest prisoners to take care of so they can make the most money. Private contractors don’t operate supermax prisons but they cut so many corners that even in their low security prisons they provide a pretty inhumane experience.

My understanding is that most private prison companies have their own in-house design groups. They tend to cherry pick the easiest prisoners to take care of so they can make the most money.

So what are the stakes here? How much of the architecture industry dabbles in prison design?

A lot of large firms have a unit that designs prisons. Sometimes that expertise overlaps with other high-security business types—military facilities and some other government facilities—but prisons are pretty specialized. The group within a large firm might be five percent of their business, in some cases maybe 15 percent. There are some firms that specialize in prisons and those ones that I’ve encountered really try to be progressive. They are the most forward-thinking, and [are] using evidence-based best practices. 

Prisons are a kind of unit in the history of architecture, design, and construction, but they aren’t one that relies on practices that violate human rights. We are not advocating that we put the firms that do prisons out of business; we would just like if they would foreground human rights in the work that they do, and I think it’s better if they do that collectivily. That’s what the code is about. 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.

Is part of the goal just to get people to change their mentality? They might hear about the inhumane conditions in prisons and think that’s awful but not think about how things could be different. 

Part of our goal is to raise awareness. The prison system in America—and the death penalty and solitary confinement are the worst aspects of it—are not only a huge drain on our resources and a stain on our national character. They are an unforgivable human rights abuse that has to stop. Most Americans are insulated from learning about it. It’s done by government policy.

We are in some respects still a democracy, so the policy is supposed to reflect the will of the people. If people are unaware, they can’t try to change it. There are policies on the books and information you can look up, but the human impact? People are not aware of it. Not at the level that they feel they need to do anything about it.