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Why a Prison Like Pelican Bay Should Never Be Designed Again Why a Prison Like Pelican Bay Should Never Be Designed Again
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Why a Prison Like Pelican Bay Should Never Be Designed Again

by Raphael Sperry

July 18, 2013

As I write this it's California prisoner hunger strike, day 10. Tens of thousands of people in prison are attempting to change the intolerable unfairness and petty restrictions that constitute life in prison. They reject the way that receiving a birthday card can be counted as "gang activity" and the limit on the number of pairs of underpants you can have when in solitary confinement. These policies may fall under the pressure from striking prisoners, but one source of suffering that can't be readily changed is the design of the buildings holding prisoners in solitary confinement.

Of course, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation may well make halfway gestures towards addressing even this level of concern, as they have done in the past two years towards the prisoners' other demands. When I visited Pelican Bay State Prison two weeks ago—home to the most notorious solitary confinement "Security Housing Unit" (or SHU) in California—some of the men told me that painters had begun preparing their cell "pods" for a new mural that would be opposite their cell doors.

Within weeks, while locked within their windowless 7 ½ x 12 foot cells, they will be able to look through the perforated metal of their cell doors and enjoy an artist's rendition of the forest beyond the prison walls—Pelican Bay is located in the heavily forested, remote northeastern corner of California. Of course during the painting project, their cell pod was put on complete lockdown, denying them their constitutionally guaranteed one hour per day of out-of-cell time, in order to prevent any contact with the painters.

Now the windowless concrete cells, hallways, and high-walled, chain-link-roofed "yards" that make up the Pelican Bay SHU mean that many men there haven't seen a tree or a blade of grass since they entered the SHU. However, the psychologists who have described the aggression, depression, hallucinations, panic attacks, and other typical reactions to prolonged isolation say the biggest problem prisoners face is not the denial of nature—painful though that may be—but the elimination of all forms of regular social interaction.

Humans are social animals, and a minimal level of interpersonal interaction is necessary to maintain basic psychological functions. In Pelican Bay, you sit alone in your cell, 23 hours a day, and then get to go alone to the shower and to the "yard" for the remaining hour—assuming there's no lockdown.

The purported design intent at Pelican Bay's 1989 opening was to hold men there for up to 18 months. As it has turned out, the average time inside is seven and one-half years, hundreds of men have been held there for over a decade, and some of those men have been there since the place opened. The State claims that these men are "the worst of the worst"—violent killers and dangerous gang leaders to the last—but I spoke to a 47-year-old man who was the youngest in his eight-man pod. It's well known that people "age out" of violence, but apparently they don't age out of solitary confinement in California.

In contrast to the 1989 design intent, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture said in 2011 that solitary confinement should never be used on juveniles or the mentally ill, and never for more than 15 days on anyone else. Get that: more than fifteen days is a form of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, to cite the full international treaty that the U.S. is a signatory to.

This is why Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility now says that prisons like Pelican Bay should never be designed again—intentionally putting people in prolonged solitary confinement is a violation of fundamental human rights. ADPSR is urging the American Institute of Architects—the mainstream professional association of architects, with many thousands more members than ADPSR—to update their code of ethics to ban the design of new prisons for prolonged solitary confinement, along with the design of execution chambers.

AIA's Ethics Code already calls on architects to "uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors," but that's an unenforceable standard. And even beyond that, professional licensing laws require architects to protect public "health, safety, and welfare." Let's ask AIA to walk the talk—guaranteeing the public that the buildings we design won't intentionally degrade, torture, or kill any occupants seems like the least that architects can do.

You don't have to think that the men in Pelican Bay are especially worthy to stand up for their human rights. It’s true that they committed crimes, everything from murder to third strike drug possession that landed them 25-to-life sentences. But human rights are not just for political dissidents living under oppressive regimes—they are for everyone, even for the people we don't like.

Architects typically design for people's best aspirations and we tend to have the goal of "building a better world." Prisoners are not typically our clients, but they are part of our world, and they deserve the same minimal standards as anyone else. They deserve the chance to make themselves part of a better world, which is impossible if they are killed, tortured, or held in prolonged isolation.

The ongoing hunger strike underscores the fact that CDCR's management of Pelican Bay has led to such complete despair that prisoners would rather risk their lives than continue to live there. Can our profession really consider providing other buildings that will lead to similar results?

Click here to put demanding that the American Institute of Architects stop designing buildings that violate human rights on your GOOD "to-do" list.

Image courtesy of Raphael Sperry

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