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The Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ) promotes and fosters the exchange of information and knowledge between members, professional organizations, and the public for high-quality planning, design, and delivery of justice architecture.

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Ethics, Human Rights, and Prisons – the AAJ Conversation – part 1

  • 1.  Ethics, Human Rights, and Prisons – the AAJ Conversation – part 1

    Posted 10-04-2013 16:16

    At our recent Portland conference, about 20 AAJ members held an informal conversation on the topic of ethics, human rights, and justice design. As the convener of the conversation-and an active participant - I offer this summary for those who were unable to attend and I encourage AAJ members who were there and those who were not to join.


    To begin the conversation, I introduced a proposed change to the AIA Code of Ethics advanced by Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR - an independent non-profit organization where I am currently president). ADPSR's proposal would prohibit the design of execution chambers or spaces intended for torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, including prolonged solitary confinement. In this post, I will summarize the rationale for the change. In the next post, I'll do my best to summarize the conversation that followed.

    I started off by applauding AIA for having on our current code the following: Ethics Standard 1.4: Human Rights:

    Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.

    This is something we can be proud of. However, it is not an enforceable "Rule" of the Code, and the only enforceable rule related to human rights prohibits discrimination in hiring - a worthy issue, but certainly not the total scope of how human rights relate to architectural practice. In fact, some building projects violate human rights and should be addressed here. I argued that AIA can and should do more for human rights, and that it is an opportunity for AIA to demonstrate leadership in an area of broad public concern, joining other prominent professions. The architectural profession collectively is responsible for the design of the built environment and must use our position to protect the public's health, safety, and wellbeing from buildings that violate human rights.

    I shared a handout that included the following points:

    Good for Architects and for AIA:

    • Recent AIA Ethics Code amendments promoting environmental sustainability and pro bono practice reaffirm architects' responsibility to the public. Strengthening our human rights standard will continue this positive trend.
    • The American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Nurses Association, and many other professional associations all already have ethics codes prohibiting participation in executions, torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. AIA should join them.
    • This amendment will support designers who want to design more humane environments for people in prison by protecting them from being undercut by others who are willing to meet client demands for abusive spaces.
    • This proposal is not retroactive. It does not penalize or "blame" architects who designed these facilities in the past.
    • "Improvements" to these building types are not necessary or reasonable. There is no "better" way to design a room intended to kill or degrade someone.

      Supports Human Rights:

    • International Human Rights NGOs and the U.N. have called for the end of the death penalty repeatedly from 1968 until today.
    • The U.S. has 37 U.S. Death Rows that have completed over >2,000 executions since 1976.
    • In 2012, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture defined solitary confinement of juveniles, the mentality ill, or anyone else in excess of 15 days as a form of torture or other prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. We should respond to this change.
    • There are 45 dedicated "supermax" prisons in the U.S. holding ~20,000 people in prolonged solitary confinement. The typical cell is 7' x 12'. The average detention is 5 years or longer in some states but the longest detention is over 40 years. Youth and the mentally ill are routinely held in solitary confinement across the U.S.
    • Prolonged solitary confinement (i.e. over 15 days) causes profound and irreversible psychological damage, because the human psyche needs social interaction and environmental stimulation to maintain its basic stability. Frequent symptoms of solitary confinement include severe hallucinations, uncontrollable rage, depression, anxiety, and decompensation. While around 4% of prisoners are kept in solitary confinement, around 50% of all prison suicides occur in solitary.

    I also pointed out that ADPSR has received endorsements for our proposal from a large and growing group of human rights and design organizations. Endorsers include Amnesty International and  the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (which represented over 800 congregations of many faiths concerned about the use of solitary confinement; one Episcopal Reverend joined our conversation as a guest ), and DesignCorps, which runs the Public Interest Design Institute. In addition, ADPSR has organized an online petition that has received over 1,000 signatures, many from architects.

    For reference, the specific proposal ADPSR is recommending is the following. I encouraged AAJ members to share thoughts on potential edits that would improve the quality of the proposal.

    Proposed Rule 1.402:

    Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.

    Proposed Commentary:

    The Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibit "torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" (ICCPR Article 7) and ICCPR also requires that "all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person" (Article 10). Prolonged solitary confinement has been identified as a form of torture or prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United Nations Human Rights Council, Committee Against Torture, and the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

    Complete information on ADPSR's proposal is available at:

    Raphael Sperry AIA
    San Francisco CA

    Submit your proposal

  • 2.  RE:Ethics, Human Rights, and Prisons – the AAJ Conversation – part 1

    Posted 10-04-2013 16:18

    (this reply is Part 2 of my summary of the conversation, see the initial post for Part 1)

    Following the introduction, other participants shared their thoughts. I encourage you all again to write in here to reinforce what you said at the conference, change your mind, share something that wasn't said, because you couldn't make it, etc. I'm summarizing and paraphrasing what I heard at the conversation out of order and without attribution because I don't want to risk offending anyone, but if you want to take ownership of any comments I am listing here, please go ahead.

    (As a note on language, the terms "solitary confinement" and "segregation" are fairly interchangeable in this discussion. U.S. correctional agencies tend to use "segregation" or similar terms, while international human rights observers tend to refer to "solitary confinement" in reference to the same locations and conditions.)

    Here's my summary of the discussion:

    • At least one AIA national director is aware of this proposal and had contacted the AAJ Advisory Group for Input. The Advisory Group may (or may not?) try to formulate a position to inform the National Board but the AG has not received input from AAJ members yet. [This discussion would be a good place to share your input. The National Board is the body with the authority to change the Code of Ethics.]
    • The last two meetings of the American Correctional Association (ACA) had keynote speeches related to solitary confinement and its mental health issues. This is an issue that ACA is keenly aware of.
    • Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is turning against the use of segregation, in part due to a recent expose in the New York Times. New York State and New York City (riker's Island) are also turning away from segregation.
    • The use of the term "torture" is inflammatory and unfair. "Torture" refers to having the intent to harm an individual to gain information or for other purposes -- even if people are harmed in U.S. prisons it is not with that kind of intent. [I agreed about the definition of torture, but responded that human rights treaties ban "torture or other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" and that U.S. conditions of concern fall under the latter part of the prohibition.]
    • A lot of people in segregation have serious mental health issues and also have committed very serious and violent crimes. What is an appropriate way to treat those people?
    • Does the Healthcare knowledge community have any position on secure mental health facilities?
    • AIA's adoption of a ban on death chambers would increase pride in AIA membership.
    • It might be easier to get a ban on death chambers alone, leaving out the issue of solitary confinement.
    • Some people present said they opposed the death penalty.
    • The death penalty is the law; don't architects have to build facilities the law requests?
    • The precedent set by the various medical associations not to participate in executions is important and should be taken note of. But what impact does it have? [I replied that in many states executions have been halted by the inability to find doctors who will participate. Also, the drug companies that make the drugs used for lethal injections will not sell those products to U.S. states anymore, because they do not want their company associated with the act of intentionally killing people. Does AIA want architects to have that association?]
    • Some of the terms should be better defined - for instance "solitary confinement" and "prolonged" solitary confinement. [I replied that the references to the various international human rights treaties in the proposed commentary is intended to direct the AIA National Ethics Council towards the large body of interpretation of those terms that has been developed by the international human rights system.]
    • It would not be fair to hold architects accountable for unintended uses of spaces we design. How would we know if a space is intended for "prolonged" solitary confinement. [I replied that the proposal refers to the design intent of spaces. Typical segregation rooms in small facilities are probably not intended for prolonged isolation, but a large facility like Pelican Bay State Prison in California, with 1,000 isolation cells, will clearly hold people for over 15 days, and provides a clear case of that intent. Gray areas, if they came up, would be examined on a case-by-case basis by the National Ethics Council.]
    • As an alternative, AAJ could write a white paper or position paper on Best Practices in correctional design, and get AIA to endorse it. This would highlight the positive aspects of design instead of the "members shall not" language of the ethics proposal. [I noted that most of the Rules in the Ethics Code define what members shall not do in negative terms, while the unenforceable Standards have more positive language. I suggested AAJ could endorse the Ethics proposal along with writing a paper to explain best practices to accompany it.]
    • Supermax prisons and death chambers aren't being built anymore and are too rare to merit this special attention. [I replied that the State of Arizona was currently designing a 500 bed supermax prison, and that as recently as 2010 California had rebuilt its execution chamber.]
    • A law professor in attendance noted that there is a difference between "human rights" (referred to in the AIA Code) and U.S. Constitutional rights. The Constitution only forbids "cruel and unusual" punishment, which has been interpreted to mean it has to be both cruel and unusual: if something is cruel but everyone is doing it, it is not unconstitutional. Courts have overturned "cruel" practices by noting an "evolving standard of decency" away from those practices, and the position of professional associations is a significant piece of evidence that courts look at to make that determination. AIA could have a big impact not only on future design but on current practice.

    Towards the end of the conversation, a Canadian attendee commended the group for having the dialogue. While he noted that Canada does not have the death penalty and does not use solitary confinement (or at least not at nearly the rate in the U.S.), he could not think of a group of Canadian architects who had sat down to investigate their ethical obligations about a weighty topic like this as seriously as our AAJ group had done.

    Raphael Sperry AIA
    San Francisco CA


    Submit your proposal