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Architects designing for prisons confront ethical questions

The number of prisons in the U.S. has exploded from nearly 500 in the 1970s to almost 2,000 today, becoming a source of business for the architects who design them. But some in the profession are urging fellow architects to stop designing solitary confinement units in prison, saying that doing so perpetuates human rights abuses. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent David Tereshchuk reports.

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  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    California-based architect Raphael Sperry has mounted a campaign. He wants his fellow-architects to stop designing solitary confinement units in prisons – and execution chambers, too.

  • RAPHAEL SPERRY:

    If you're hiring an AIA architect, we are like the best. We're committed to the highest standard…

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    Practically speaking, for an architect the chance to design a new execution chamber occurs very rarely. But given the nation's continuing boom in prison-construction, there are plenty of solitary confinement units to be designed and built. As Sperry barnstorms through design schools and architecture firms' offices, he argues for re-writing the profession's Code of Ethics – in effect to outlaw work on designing solitary units.

  • RAPHAEL SPERRY, ARCHITECT:

    Architects should not design spaces for solitary confinement. It's a form of torture that's recognized by the entire international human rights community. We're enabling and frankly participating in human rights abuse.

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    Sperry's efforts to get architects out of designing for solitary are gaining traction among the profession's grass-roots.

  • KAI:

    Individually it doesn't make a difference but as a profession, as a whole, we can start saying 'no, we're not going to take part in that.'

  • ADRIENNE:

    We are interested in bettering our communities and how can you do that when you're when you're putting people in small boxes and not giving them access to daylight

  • ZOE:

    The best way to do it is to just not do it.

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT, PHILADELPHIA, PA:

    America's use of solitary confinement in effect started here at Eastern State Penitentiary of Pennsylvania in 1829. A British architect won a $100 for his design. And the basic operating principle was that solitude would enable prisoners to get regretful and "penitent" about their crime – hence the word "Penitentiary".

    Against a background of grim prison conditions, Pennsylvania's early 19th-century Quakers saw introducing solitary confinement as a way to reform.

  • SEAN KELLEY:

    They believed that if you put people in solitary confinement long enough, people would look into their hearts and they would find their inner goodness, their inner light and they would behave themselves.

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    Sean Kelley works for the Penitentiary – nowadays effectively a museum of incarceration – on interpreting its historical and social significance.

  • SEAN KELLEY, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY HISTORIC SITE:

    The prisoners would live inside the cells and they'd do some kind of simple work in the cell. They would make shoes or weave or make furniture. The prisoners would go out a little door into their own exercise yard, about the same size as the cell itself, that opened to the sky, and that was their world. Those two spaces: the cell for 23 hours a day, the exercise yard for one. No visitors, nothing to read aside from the Bible. Silence.

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    Two centuries later, psychiatric studies repeatedly find that prolonged solitary confinement can lead to profound mental disorders. Eastern State Penitentiary discovered that early on. It eventually gave up being a purely solitary institution after 85 years. And it eventually closed down completely as a prison in the 1970s.

  • SEAN KELLEY:

    The great lesson of Eastern State turned out to be that solitary confinement did not rehabilitate people. There's debate about how damaging it was but wide agreement that it was damaging.

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    But throughout the nation's prison systems today, solitary remains in regular use – in theory, mainly for a difficulty minority of prisoners, the badly-behaved, and sometimes to protect inmates who'd be at risk among the general population. Nevertheless, modern-day reformers increasingly argue that solitary is now vastly over-used, and all too often it continues for unacceptably lengthy periods – even many years in some cases. Such alleged over-use, which gets publicly reported only rarely, is what's galvanizing concerned architects like Sperry.

  • RAPHAEL SPERRY:

    Even though solitary confinement is a really common practice in the United States; there's 80,000 people in solitary confinement, almost as many as licensed architects as we have. The number of Americans who know that fact is very, very small because it's a practice that's done to prisoners who are already neglected and discarded bunch of people.

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    There is a body of opinion among architects, though, that does not object to designing solitary confinement units.

  • JIM MUELLER:

    Solitary confinement and maximum, maximum security confinements are necessary under certain very, very distinct circumstances

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    Jim Mueller has designed many prisons over decades, including solitary units. The firm he recently retired from is among the world leaders of what the trade calls 'justice' architecture. He believes their expertise as architects has brought a more humane approach to solitary confinement.

  • JIM MUELLER, ARCHITECT:

    It's better that we do it than not do it because I'm worrisome about who would do it in the absence of architects doing it.

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    Architecture is a commercial enterprise, of course – and designing prisons is good for business. There's been an almost four-fold increase in the number of state and federal prisons from 500 in the 1970s to nearly two thousand now. And if an architectural practice turned down such work on grounds of conscience or ethics, they could end up at a competitive disadvantage, according to Mueller.

  • JIM MUELLER:

    The justice environment is a competitive business. They have to allow us to compete. But it would be very doubtful that they would select us.

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    So if solitary confinement remains embedded in the business of prison design, can architects balance the demands of their clients, the prison authorities, with their own efforts to be humane? Beverly Prior is another California-based architect who's designed for many different kinds of detention.

  • BEVERLY PRIOR:

    I feel like I'm responsible not just to the owner that is planning to do this facility but I'm also responsible to the greater community. I also have a guiding principle around wanting the environment to be healthy not only for the inmates that are there but also for the staff that work there.

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    Prior accepts solitary confinement as necessary but she prefers it should make up only a small element of any facility she designs, like this unit she's working on for Santa Clara County.

  • BEVERLY PRIOR, ARCHITECT:

    It's more like a time-out type of situation. They have observation into the cells. They have an exterior wall where all the cells are able to get light in from the outside as well as views out. And that's one of the driving principles these days for health, is to have the long views to experience daylight, to experience sunlight.

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    But the basic dispute persists – no matter how humane some architects try to make their designs. Should architects ever design for solitary confinement at all? Feelings have run high. JIM MUELLER: People invaded our office and sprayed paint across all of desks and throughout that office. So it was very, very destructive and disruptive. But it did not deter us.

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    The American Institute of Architects, or AIA, has so far resisted any substantial overhaul to its Code of Ethics.

    The AIA told the NewsHour Weekend that their Code already has a provision that applies generally to work on prisons. It's a "Standard", not an enforceable "Rule", and it says: "Members should employ their professional knowledge and skill to design buildings and spaces that will enhance and facilitate human dignity — and the health, safety, and welfare of the individual and the public."

  • DAVID TERESHCHUK:

    But Sperry still presses his case, hoping this Fall to win over local chapters of the Institute, ahead of next year's national AIA conference. He and his supporters feel they're gaining ground.

  • RAPHAEL SPERRY:

    Yeah, AIA has not come all the way around, but they started to come around. I think it just takes them a while to accept some difficult facts about the criminal justice system that they really haven't paid attention to in the past. Once they do that, they'll know what the right thing to do is.

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