Toothless Prison Design Policies

The AIA recently revised its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to prohibit its members from designing several specific pieces of prison infrastructure. The move was warmly greeted in the press and on social media. But it was a meaningless move on AIA’s part. The only acceptable ethics for AIA members are ethics that forbid any work on jails and prisons.

While I won’t speculate on who kept these changes so watered down, it’s important to remember that we architects are a timid bunch — it doesn’t take much for us to get spooked and back off. Remember, there’s a lot of money in the design and construction of prisons, and AIA’s ArchiPAC has been a strong supporter of politicians who also benefit from the support of the for-profit private prison industry.

Anyone who thinks that “prohibiting members from knowingly designing spaces intended for execution and torture, including indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more per day without meaningful human contact, for more than 15 consecutive days” is sufficient when you have a prison machine capable of the macabre creativity displayed in this recent article from ProPublica is pulling the wool over their own eyes. Also, I had to laugh at all the adjectives and conditions written into the definition of solitary confinement — it was clearly influenced by lobbyists. This new verbiage is designed to leave a nice, big loophole for the prison industry while giving its architects a pass. I can already see RFPs and programs from the for-profit prison industry describing rooms sized for gurneys and IV stands, but omitting what specifically the room will be used for — so that’s a-okay ethically! Wink-wink, nudge-nudge! Come on…

There are millions of people locked up in this country. We have no shortage of jail or prison capacity. What we do have a shortage of is built infrastructure that supports world-class education, technical training, quality affordable housing, and places for kids to go after school — all of which are proven to reduce crime and/or recidivism. Until the AIA puts some teeth into its policies on prisons and jails, it’s tacitly endorsing this country’s fucked-up, racist, and corrupt justice system. Let’s do better.