Q+A: Should prisons be designed to intimidate or rehabilitate?

Aug 1 • Q+A • 1953 Views • Comments Off on Q+A: Should prisons be designed to intimidate or rehabilitate?


Raphael Sperry is an architect and president of Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility, a non-profit organization founded in 1983 that works for disarmament, protection of the natural and built environment, and socially responsible development:


Architects are trained to think about the context of their projects carefully. In the case of prisons, the context includes not just the expanse of land around the site, but the criminal legal system of which it is a part. In the United States this includes the world’s largest prison population and the highest per-capita rate of incarceration. Simply put, the function of American prisons today is neither intimidation to deter crime nor rehabilitation, but warehousing a stigmatized under-class composed largely of small-time drug offenders (see Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” for the full explanation).


Unfortunately, prison designs of all types have contributed to the gross over-use of imprisonment and have failed to solve the problems of crime. This is because crime stems from troubled communities where there has been systematic underinvestment of public resources in favor of imprisonment. For instance, more Americans get mental health care in jail than in public clinics. A new education-oriented jail cannot make up for the lack of adequate public schools in poor neighborhoods any more than “housing” poor people in prisons at public expense can make up for the inadequacies of America’s public housing stock. And yet four decades of being “tough on crime” – employing increased intimidation from police forces, prosecutors, and harsher prisons – has proved almost wholly ineffective at decreasing crime rates despite “corrections” growing to outpace state spending on higher education. Meanwhile the harshest American prisons have been condemned by Amnesty International.


ADPSR is currently petitioning AIA to prohibit the design of execution chambers and “supermax” prisons that take intimidation to the level of human rights violations. We also urge architects to carefully consider whether the significant public resources needed to build a new prison for any purpose could not do more to build a truly safe and healthy society if used more creatively to design alternative buildings that meet real community needs.

So what do you think?

Should prisons be designed to intimidate or rehabilitate?

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