An Architect’s Code

Roman Mars: This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman: I swear to fulfill to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant

Participant: A man must have a code, no doubt.

Roman: The fundamental ethical precept of medicine is that doctors first do no harm. This led the American Medical Association to adopt opinion 2.06 of the AMA code of medical ethics in 1992. “An individuals opinion of capital punishment is the personal moral decision of that individual. A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution.” It goes on from there. Lawyers have an ethics code, journalists have an ethics code, so it shouldn’t surprise you that architects do as well. The relevant ethical standard from the AIA that we’re discussing is ES 1.4, Human Rights. Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.

Sam Greenspan: A number of architects have taken a stance that there are some buildings that just should not have been built.

Roman: And they don’t just mean the ugly buildings.

Sam: That by design, they violate standards of human rights.

Roman: That’s our producer Sam Greenspan. He’s talking about prisons.

Sam: Specifically, prisons that keep inmates alone in cells with little to do and with minimal human contact. Inmates have names for these places, the box or the bing. On the outside, we know them as supermax or the SHU.

Roman: That’s SHU for Security Housing Unit.

Sam: Now, it’s up for debate as to whether or not the SHU is “solitary confinement.” Reason being, and this is something weird we found while researching the story, there is no legal definition for solitary confinement. The UN doesn’t have one, the Department of Justice doesn’t have one, and either does the CDCR, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Roman: The CDCR maintains that no prisoners in California are kept in solitary confinement. They refer to the SHU as a “Segregation unit”.

Sam: But a number of groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, do call the SHU solitary confinement. And there’s a lot of controversy surrounding one SHU at a Northern California prison called, Pelican Bay.

Roman: Pelican Bay State Prison was designed by San Francisco based architecture firm KMD. KMD declined to speak to us for this story but Jim Mueller, an architect with KMD who worked on Pelican Bay did talk with architect magazine about the prison. He said, “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.”

Sam: Life inside of a SHU means 22 to 23 hours a day inside of a tiny room 80 or so square feet.

Roman: Nancy Mullane, a radio reporter with life of the law managed to get access to the SHU in Pelican Bay State Prison in California. She went inside one of the cells and had an inmate, Robert Luca, describe the room.

Robert Luca: Basically it’s the cell I don’t know what size, six by nine or six by twelve, whatever it is, and that’s your bunk is your living room. The center of it is your walking area and two steps to the right is your bathroom, pretty much.

Roman: The official measurements are actually seven and a half by twelve feet. It’s not a space that’s designed to keep you comfortable. But it’s not these architectural features that concern humanitarian activists and psychiatrists. It’s the amount of time many prisoners spend in that cell, alone, without any meaningful activity.

Terry Kupers: Long term solitary confinement which is either for months or years, or it goes on forever as in Pelican Bay, connected with absolute idleness. That is the individual socially isolated to the extreme but also has nothing meaningful to do. This causes a human breakdown, this destroys people as human beings.

Sam: Terry Kupers is a psychiatrist who specializes in forensic work. That is, he’s an expert on the intersection of mental health and criminal justice. He served as an expert witness on more than 20 class action lawsuits concerning prison conditions. He says there’s a whole litany of effects that solitary can have on a person.

Terry Kupers: Massive free-floating anxiety, paranoid ideas, insomnia, depression, and suicidal thoughts are very prominent. Their eyes are destroyed, because if you do not look at a distance for a long length of time, your eye deteriorates. They have concentration and memory problems, and I asked if they read and they’ll say, “No, because I can’t remember what I read three pages earlier.” Mounting anger and they almost universally report that they’re terrified that their anger will get out of control. They’ll be in more trouble and then they’ll have a longer term in solitary.

Sam: That’s just for a normal, stable person. For prisoners with a history of or predisposition to mental illness, solitary can bring on a breakdown.

Roman: Now again, there is no universally accepted definition of solitary confinement, and Life of the Law reporter Nancy Mullane says that compared to other prisons she has visited there are actually some good design elements in the Pelican Bay SHU. Inmates can get natural light from skylights outside of their cells, which drifts into the doors made of perforated metal. These porous doors allow for inmates to communicate with each other, even though there are no lines of sight to any prisoner from within the cell.

Sam: But on the other hand, cells don’t have windows. Inmates never get to see the horizon. The only time prisoners get to leave the cell is to visit the shower or the exercise yard. The exercise yard is an empty, windowless room, not much bigger than a cell with 20 foot high concrete walls. And while many prisoners in the shoe have a cellmate, Terry Kupers says, “Sharing a cell is often worse than being alone.” So, if that’s not solitary confinement per se, you could call it a kind of binary confinement.

Roman: All of this taken together, some people call torture.

Sam: in 2011 Juan Méndez, the UN Special rapporteur on torture said anything over 15 days–

Juan Méndez: 15 days in solitary confinement is a human rights abuse. Now, various other commentators have said that means it’s torture.

Sam: 15 days says the UN, is the point at which people in solitary can begin to have irreparable psychological damage.

Juan Méndez: I don’t actually like the 15-day standard, some people fall apart in two days.

Sam: What Terry Kupers calls torture, happens in buildings specifically designed to maximize the isolation or “segregation” of prisoners for the duration of their time in the SHU.

Roman: 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?

Raphael Sperry: In Argentina, the military regime tortured people in a former auto body shop. That was one of their big torture centers. I’m not going to– nobody’s going to say that the architects who designed the auto body shop or somehow responsible, or even that the car mechanics we just own it… are no, of course not.

Roman: This is Raphael Sperry.

Raphael Sperry: But when solitary confinement is a practice that requires a certain kind of space, and when you’re specifying the space exactly for that and making sure that all the doors can be operated without, you know, seeing another human being, that the outdoor space it’s going to be one that’s occupied by one person at a time, that there’s nowhere for a group of people to actually be together so it just won’t happen, then that is a designed intent. When used as intended, human rights violations will result.

Sam: Raphael Sperry is an architect here in San Francisco and he’s the president of the group called ADPSR.

Raphael: Architects Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility.

Sam: A few years back, Raphael had been following the news from Guantanamo Bay and reading up on mass incarceration in the US. Not necessarily as an architect, per se, just as a civic-minded, social justice oriented kind of guy. Then one day in 2010, he saw an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the redesign of San Quentin Prison in California.

Raphael: Yeah, The Chronicle actually ran a picture that was supplied by the corrections department that was the CAD model.

Sam: A kind of three-dimensional floor plan.

Raphael: Of the execution chamber suite of rooms. And I was like, “They’re using the same tools that I use to make residential additions for people, to make schools. Only this project is going to kill people.” That was totally shocking.

Roman: Seeing the remodel of the death chamber was the catalyzing event. But you could argue that there’s a difference between designing a death room and designing a SHU. But Sperry views both as immoral, and in violation of the human rights that architects swear to uphold. Raphael Sperry wants architects and the profession of architecture as a whole, at least in the US, to stop building SHUs, or any structures that are designed for long term solitary confinement or are designed to put people to death. He’s not talking about all prisons or jails, just the ones where isolation is baked into the physical structure like the AIA architect design SHU at Pelican Bay prison.

Sam: Pelican Bay State Prison is way up in Northern California near the Oregon border, hours from any major city. It opened in 1989 to house the so-called worst of the worst, suspected gang members and people who are seen to pose the greatest threat to officers and other inmates. It was modeled after prison in Arizona and has since inspired the design for other prisons across the country, even buildings in Guantanamo Bay.

Roman: Life of the Laws Nancy Mullane, had corrections officer Lieutenant Rick Graves describe his take on the purpose of the SHU when she visited Pelican Bay in 2012.

Rick Graves: The key to making this design work in our favor is not just the design of it, but how its managed. Historically, Pelican Bay is done a very good job of managing the worst of the worst in the state. This prison was designed and built to manage 5% of the California prison population. Those were the 5% that were causing the majority of crimes in the other prisons throughout the state.

Roman: The way that Pelican Bay or any prison is managed is really the determining factor in what life is like for prisoners. The way these prisons are used isn’t the only way they could be used. Prison management could decide that SHU prisoners could be allowed to go outside of the building in a secure gated area, or the exercise yard can be re-purposed as a communal dining hall. We’re just making these up, as far as I know, these have never been considered.

Sam: For Rafael Sperry, the key here is design intent. Pelican Bay is managed the way it is and prisoners day in day out are the way they are because that’s how architects imagine the place to work during the design process.

Roman: Sperry along with the ADPSR, Architects Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility, say it’s time to stop building the prisons that are designed for what he sees as solitary confinement or any other kind of torture or execution.

Raphael: It would seem like the least that architects could do would say, to demonstrate our commitment to public health, safety and well being is to say, “When you enter one of our buildings, it’s not intended to kill you or to torture you.”

Roman: Which brings us back to the rather minimal statement in the AIA code of ethics and professional conduct, ethical standard 1.4, “Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.”

Raphael: That’s it. Human rights refers to the international system that is built up around the United Nations and strongly supported by these advocacy organizations.

Roman: Like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Raphael Sperry: Human rights is not a term that United States Courts use and it’s not a term in US Constitution, it actually refers to something even bigger than that. They said members should support the US Constitution, that would be different.

Roman: Sperry and the ADPSR are participating the AIA to adopt a new clause in its 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.”

Raphael: If you happen to find yourself in prison, you should know that because your prison was designed by an architect, you won’t be subjected to cruel, inhuman degrading punishment or get killed there.

Sam: So far the San Francisco chapter of the AIA has recommended the proposal.

Roman: We should point out here that the AIA San Francisco was instrumental in the creation of 99% Invisible but it doesn’t give us any money or serving in the editorial function we monitor ownership completely.

Sam: If the AIA national adopt this amendment, it will become part of the ethics code for all AIA architects, virtually every practicing architect in the United States.

Roman: Regardless of how you feel about prisons, whether we should rehabilitate people or whether we should lock them up and throw away the key, it’s important to keep in mind that these attitudes change over time.

Sam: From around the 1890s to the 1950s, the US had a really different take on prison. The emphasis was on curing, or rehabilitating people from a life of crime. Granted, there were some really terrible things that happened in prisons during that time, but the emphasis at least was on getting prisoners to become productive members of society again. A big shift happened with the war on drugs which sent a lot more people to jail, and then there was the violence of the prison riots or uprisings that happened to the 1970s. From the point of view of prison officials who are in charge of jailing these populations, locking people up in their cells from most the time started looking like a good option.

Roman: Hence the SHU, but when you create a building with a very extreme design intent with little variability, you’re locking prisoners into that current mindset for the lifespan of the prison. Tams Correctional Center, a supermax prison in Illinois was closed in early 2013 to make up for a state budget shortfall. It turns out housing a SHU prisoner is nearly twice as expensive as housing a general population inmate. Widespread budgetary pressure and possibly the influence of anti-solitary confinement activists is also causing state governments to reduce the number of supermax prisoners in Mississippi, Maine, and Colorado. Raphael Sperry may find he has a strange and powerful ally in his fight to stop architects building supermax prisons, and that is: broke state governments. But even if supermax facilities fall out of fashion, Sperry says it’s still important to establish ethical guidelines that distinguish architects as a profession.

Raphael: It’s professional ethics that set a profession aside from other occupations. When you join a licensed profession, your group has a monopoly to provide services in that sector. Not anybody else can be an architect and in fact, one of AIA’s big activities is patrolling people who are holding themselves out as architects but aren’t actually architects. In exchange for the public monopoly that we get as a group, we as a group have to adopt professional ethics that put the public interest first. The way that we do that is the way, for instance, that doctors do that. Is to say, “We’re not going to do anything to injure any of you intentionally.”

Roman: This episode of 99% Invisible is a special co-production with the podcast Life of the Law. You can hear their show at This story was produced by Sam Greenspan, Nancy Mullane. Caitlin Prest, Julia Barton, Shannon Heffernan, Ashley and Craig Boom and me Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

  1. joe

    This was an interesting podcast but lacked an important perspective, in my opinion, in that we don’t hear any serious attempt to explain the reasons for the practice of isolating prisoners. I am not especially well informed on this point, but my understanding is that many of the people in isolation are gang members. The significance of that is that if gang leaders can communicate with other prisoners, then they can get messages to gang members in the outside world. If they can do that, then they can reach out beyond the prison walls to strike at the families of guards, prosecutors, etc. In this way, the prisoners gain power over the prisons and the justice system. .

    I read an article some years ago about the Aryan Brotherhood. To say that they are an extremely violent group understates the matter considerably; their method for achieving power is terror, pure and simple. The chilling quote in the article — from a guard — was that the guards control the prison’s perimeter, the Brotherhood runs the prison.

    So, there may be a different solution than the ones employed today, but I felt this otherwise interesting story misrepresented the situation somewhat in not acknowledging the serious problem high-security prisons are designed to address.

  2. Mario Fernández Payró

    The problem with architects not designing this facilities, is that there are going to be built anyhow, but instead of an architect, it will be an engineer who cares even less for the inmates. Architects should look at ways to make the SHU better for prisoners. The should also be other civil liberties groups trying to ban SHUs, but that is going to take time.

  3. One the key places that Architects can assist everyone working to raise the quality of life for kids, is to ask and question who is being housed and processed in their buildings and projects. Many juveniles are being housed in detention facilities with adult males. Many juveniles, undocumented kids, are being housed in substandard facilities (they do not have enough money to pay for pro bono attorneys). Other are interviewed & processed in holding cells and centers that are child-unfriendly; especially for a kid who has been abused & exploited.

  4. CL

    Why the fuck does every random twat feel entitled to an opinion on everything?

    They’re fucking architects. Their wishes and feelings regarding prisoners are the most absurdly, earth-shatteringly, profoundly IRRELEVANT thing I can imagine. I literally can’t imagine a smaller unit of importance than architects’ thoughts on inmate conditions.

    You know whose opinion does matter? The victims of crime. And those people aren’t getting justice if the criminal isn’t getting damn-near-tortured.

    1. Len Conly

      What about the people who are wrongly convicted? A number of people have spent years on death row for crimes they didn’t commit.

    2. CL, justice is served when the perpetrator looses his or her freedom for a matter of years or a lifetime. At the same time the public is protected from further acts of violence. What good does it do to torture someone if it only leads to his or her becoming sicker and more violent and the torturers becoming less human? Do we really want people who have served their time to come out worse people than they were when they went in? We should do our best to rehabilitate prisoners so they can become contributing members of society.

      The article is from the point of view of architects and is about their commitment to doing no harm. I think it is a fine, thoughtful article.

  5. CLown

    Can’t agree more with you CL, as you just exhibited the role of a random twat.

    Firstly, for not subscribing to the notion of basic human rights, and secondly for not understanding the supposed intended role of the prison system, which is rehabilitation.

    And then of course lastly, architects’ chief concern and responsibility is toward the occupants of buildings, regardless of who they are.

  6. Anonymous

    The system we have today for incarceration has not really changed over time. They try to say there making things better but really there only making things better for the very low security prisons where there never really was a problem.

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