Specifically, this refers to prisons with execution chambers, or prisons that are designed keep people in long-term isolation (or as prison officials call it, “segregation”). The latter kind of prison is called a “supermax,” or “security housing unit” (SHU). There is no legal definition for solitary confinement, so it’s up for debate as to whether the SHU constitutes solitary confinement.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding one SHU at a Northern California prison called Pelican Bay.
(Credit: California Department of Corrections)
Pelican Bay State Prison was designed by San Francisco-based architecture firm KMD. KMD declined to speak with us for this story. But Jim Mueller, an architect with KMD who worked on Pelican Bay, told Architect Magazine: ”“The inmates have no contact with other inmates during the vast majority, if not all, of the day. They are only allowed out of their cells for very short periods of time for constitutionally required exercise periods.”
(Rendering of the Pelican Bay SHU. Each “pod” contains six cells, a shower, and an exercise yard. Control rooms monitor the pods, and can open and close cell doors remotely. The control rooms are accessed by an upper deck, which has a metal mesh floor allowing officers to fire a shotgun down into the pod in the event of a security breach. Courtesy of Raphael Sperry.)
Life inside of the SHU at Pelican Bay means 22 to 23 hours a day inside of 7.5 by 12 foot room. It’s not a space that’s designed to keep you comfortable. But it’s not just these architectural features, that concern humanitarian activists and psychiatrists. It’s the amount of time many prisoners spend in that cells, alone, without any meaningful activity. Some psychiatrists, such as Terry Kupers, say there is a whole litany of effects that a SHU can have on a person: massive anxiety, paranoia, depression, concentration and memory problems, and loss of ability to control one’s anger (which can get a prisoner in trouble and lengthen the SHU sentence). In California, SHU inmates are 33 times more likely to commit suicide than other prisoners incarcerated elsewhere in the state. There are even reports of eye damage due to the restriction on distance viewing. Terry Kupers says that a SHU ”destroys people as human beings.”
(Terry Kupers at the Conference on Solitary Confinement and Human Rights, November 2012.)
Compared with some other prisons in the California system, the Pelican Bay SHU has some redeeming architectural features. Inmates can get natural light from skylights outside of their cells, which drifts in through doors made of a perforated metal. These porous doors also allow for inmates to communicate with each other, even though there are no lines of sight to any prisoner from within the cell.
(Prisoner Robert Luca sitting outside of his cell. Notice that the cell faces a blank wall, seen through the visual distortion of the perforated metal door. Credit: Nancy Mullane.)
But on the other hand, cells don’t have windows. Inmates never get to see the horizon. The only times prisoners get to leave the cell is to visit the shower, or the exercise yard—which is an empty, windowless room not that much bigger than a cell, with twenty-foot high concrete walls.
Again, there is no universally accepted definition of solitary confinement. But some groups, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have gone beyond calling the SHU solitary confinement—they call it torture. In 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture said anything over 15 days in solitary confinement is a human rights abuse—which other sources have interpreted as torture.
So if it is the ethical code of architects to promote human rights…what is their responsibility to the people who are incarcerated in their buildings?
Enter Raphael Sperry, a San Francisco-based architect and president of ADPSR. He believes it’s up to architects to lead the charge against these buildings. Sperry and the ADPSR are trying to get the American Institute of Architects to adopt an amendment to their ethics code:
“Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.”
(Under surveillance in the exercise yard. Credit: Nancy Mullane)
This episode is a special collaboration between 99% Invisible and the podcast Life of the Law. 99% Invisible producer Sam Greenspan spoke with Raphael Sperry and Terry Kupers about the effects of these kinds of prisons on the people who inhabit them, and what they say about the practice of architecture as a whole in the US.
In addition, Life of the Law’s Nancy Mullane drove very, very far to visit the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison, where she spoke with prisoners and prison officials about life in the SHU.