The Architects of Incarceration

This is another in an emerging series of articles here at ALL CAPS reflecting on how we make architecture a more accessible, authentic, and equitable profession. In this article, we’ll explore the complicated relationship between architects and America’s prison-building machine.

Be sure to check out previous articles in this series:

There’s a renewed focus in the US architecture community on formally rejecting any work involving jails or prisons and calling out firms who are still engaging with clients in the business of locking people up behind bars. This is great to see, and even reassuring to know that so many architects and firms refuse to get involved in the prison economy. That last word, economy, is key to why we continue to be frustrated that the AIA won’t formally denounce this kind of work. There’s money in locking up people and architects who design jails and prisons are profiting off of a sector of the economy that costs us almost $200,000,000,000 per year (I wrote out that number instead of saying $200B for impact — that’s a shit ton of money). I wanted to know more about the money that goes into incarceration and how much architects are raking in from making America number one in the world in jailing people.

Jails & Prisons are Big Fee Projects for Architects

First, it’s important to note that the rise of privately-owned and operated for-profit prison companies has caused them to follow the same path of any other type of company who rolls out locations across the country: they established in-house design departments. So in some cases, they own their own firms to handle their dirty work. For municipal correctional facility work, the traditional scenario of hiring an architecture firm still applies.

In 2017, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) released an exhaustive report on the money being spent in the prison industry. They showed that $3.3B was spent on prison construction (probably more as there’s some overlap with the $3.9B in their Private Corrections figure). As we’re not slowing down our rates of incarceration, it’s safe to assume that $3.3B is even larger today. To give a sense of relative size, the 2017 spend on prison construction was closest in total to the $3.6B spent on religious institutions/places of worship construction back in that same year according to the US Census Bureau.

It’s hard for firms chasing growth to walk away from a multi-billion dollar segment of the built world, and that makes it easy to brush aside any lingering social justice and equity concerns brought about by this line of work. It’s especially troubling that having firms do the right thing and abandon this work could empower the for-profit prison companies to grow their in-house design firms and become the go-to designers.

What’s AIA National’s Role in Enabling Prison Architecture?

AIA National is a slow-moving machine, and I do hope that they will come to their senses soon and formally denounce prison work (at a minimum). The AIA Board of Directors recently issued a statement where they said “we will review our own programs” and “ask our community to join us and hold us accountable.” So, we’ll see…

The political arm of AIA’s work representing the interests of the architecture community is ArchiPAC, their political action committee working with members of Congress. I’m pragmatic about PACs and I realize that sometimes you have to hold your nose and work with a lawmaker that otherwise makes your skin crawl in order to accomplish something good, or maybe even favorable to your industry. But what’s missing from ArchiPAC is some clear, concise guidance on what rules out a campaign contribution, no matter what we lose out on because of our lack of support. ArchiPAC needs some scruples. ArchiPAC says part of their mission is to support candidates who, “promote positive solutions for the built environment” which would seem to imply that anyone receiving a campaign contribution shouldn’t also be accepting contributions from the prison industry, right? Wrong.

For the current 2020 cycle alone, ArchiPAC has made contributions to the some of the largest beneficiaries of the prison industry’s dirty money:

Representatives Who Received 2020 Campaign Contributions from ArchiPAC & The For-Profit Prison Industry

Name (party-state)
Bacon (R-NE)
Carter (R-TX)
Cuellar (D-TX) 💰
Fitzpatrick (R-PA)
Granger (R-TX)
Huizenga (R-MI)
Katko (R-NY)
McAdams (D-UT) 💰 (it appears the ArchiPAC contribution was returned)
Nunes (R-CA)
Reed (R-NY)
Upton (R-MI)
💰= Top 20 Recipient of Prison Money


Senators Who Received 2020 Campaign Contributions from ArchiPAC & The For-Profit Prison Industry

Name (party-state)
Shaheen (D-NH)
Hyde-Smith (R-MS)
McConnell (R-KY) 💰
💰= Top 20 Recipient of Prison Money


That’s definitely not promoting positive solutions for the built environment. Rather, it’s enabling some people to continue to profit off of locking up other people at a higher per capita rate than anywhere else on earth.

How Do We Get All of Architecture Out of Prison Design?

We all need to agree to not do something. Good luck on that, right? Well, if we look at the US prison system for what it is, and do so very visibly, then it becomes socially unacceptable. If we can do that, then we might be able get our industry to stop profiting from imprisoning our people. It all starts with clear and ethical leadership from folks like the AIA setting the tone and making it clear that these potential clients are ones we all turn down.

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