This is such a complex issue, not one that can be addressed with absolutes. Certainly, as architects, our goal is always to improve the human condition as it relates to our designs. Prisons are a necessary building type, although one that is often misunderstood by many.
As far as I know, our government does not design for solitary confinement any longer- a practice that went out with the old penitentiary designs when psychologists thought self reflection would lead to rehabilitation. Prisons and jails typically provide safety cells for temporary housing of distressed inmates who are in imminent danger to themselves. Typical maximum-security housing consists of single or double cells for inmates who are a danger to others or are in danger from others. However, a dayroom is required in new designs to allow inmates to get out of their cells for at least an hour per day- and often for much longer.
It is also important to understand that prisons and jails create unique challenges that are influenced by so many external factors outside the control of the designer, and will require fundamental changes in society before any real evolution can occur.
First, there are the building codes. Without getting into too much detail, fire and life safety requirements force architects to design with concrete, masonry, and fireproofed steel. Interior environments have very specific requirements which define the type of glazing and limit window dimensions. These codes really define what is possible right from the start.
Second, there is human error. The custody officers are not perfect, and designs have to account for mistakes by staff. Unions also influence how much officers and inmates are allowed to interact. Want to force changes, you'll have to battle some of the most powerful unions in the county- something that is outside the architect's control.
Third is the litigious nature of our society. This is the big one. Inmates sometimes commit suicide while in the care of the state. These lawsuits cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and result in the removal of any amenities which could aide in suicide. Also, if one inmate kills another inmate, or an officer, this will result in a lawsuit. Often, inmates are placed in isolation for their own protection. Again, this is all outside of the architect's control. The system is broken, and until there are fundamental changes, all we can do is warehouse inmates.
Open the doors and let the prisoners go? No way! There are some really bad people in prison that were already horrific souls before they got to prison, and I don't want them out on the street with my children. For example, I happened to brush shoulders with Ed Kemper (the "Co-ed killer"-a mass murderer) on a visit to a local prison recently. I was surprised he was in general population, but one of the guards assured me that he was one of the better-behaved prisoners there. The men in the Administrative Segregation unit were real monsters by comparison.
Do we need change? Absolutely! The evolution of the justice system is a pet project of mine, and I believe the real changes starts with better funding for law enforcement. We also need more alternatives to incarceration so that only violent offenders are imprisoned. However, many prisons are out-of-date, unsafe, and dangerous. They need to be replaced. The idea that we need to stop building prisons is a bit naïve. If we don't build newer institutions that we continue subject inmates to poor environments which don't meet requirements of recent litigation and ultimately will cost taxpayers more money. So, let's start to work on those external factors. It will take time. And while we wait for change, you should not blame architects who design prisons. We should not question their "moral responsibility" when they are only improving conditions.
Lorenzo Lopez AIA
Vice President, Senior Planner
Nacht & Lewis Architects
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