Joining the Parade!

Just in case the AIA Committee on Architecture for Justice has not yet planned its early November program in San Francisco, one topic of interest might be whether to sign "the pledge." Getting through the crowd of 279 protesting architects at the CAJ hotel site who have signed "the pledge" could be a challenge. Still, this shouldn’t take long since none of the recognized architects that I know of who have historically been involved in designing prisons have signed it. Therefore, stopping to say hello to old placard-carrying friends won’t take long.


By now, you may be wondering if I’m spending the summer in the hot sun without head cover. But unless you have been too long at the pool-side bar, you should have heard that Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility ( has asked that all socially responsible architects, designers and planners join together and refuse any commissions that would expand the number of prison beds in the US. ADPSR is a viable organization, founded in 1983 to support a nuclear arms freeze and to become a voice for social issues rising from the hearts and throats of the design community. The organization has been at the leading edge on green building issues and regularly raises the bar on ethics, calling on designers and planners to give more regard to their communities than giving them a thought only when they’re passing through them on their drives to work.

Should we sign "the pledge?" My guess is that the readers of this periodical earn a reasonable portion of their pocket change from the prison building industry. And we are talking industry. During the decades of the ’80s and ’90s, the U.S. added an average of 100 new prison beds a day. It truly requires an industry to meet that level of demand. During the time when a million new beds were constructed, the industry innovated, matured and, well, profited. While the conditions of confinement in America’s prisons and jails were being vastly improved, voices of caution were also constantly reminding us that we would never build our way out of a social and political crisis.

A Controversial Topic

In mid-June I moderated a debate on "Privatization" at the American Association of Correctional and Forensic Psychology’s ( National Prison Debate in Alexandria, Va. As you might expect, this topic was the most controversial, the most misunderstood and the one around which the least consensus developed. However, from the "left" and the "right" came at least a murmur that maybe we have enough beds and now is the time to be about doing more at the front-end and back-end, and less in the middle of the continuum.

I won’t burden you with facts about the U.S. being the most prolific jailer in the world, with more folks under some form of community control than a city the size of Los Angeles, and spending more money per prisoner each year than it takes to send a kid to college with an excess of beer money. Attend any prison conference and you will be reminded of just how big the industry has become. The question for us is are we following the path of the U.S. automakers, producing Hummers and rubber-tired, highway-eligible tanks even as gas prices are doubling and will continue to increase regardless of more and bigger pipelines?

Regardless of which side of the economic equation you come down on, in the end the future of the auto, health care and prison industries will be less about social than fiscal policy. Prison building in America today is a fraction of its former self. Is it because there is less crime? You bet. Then what’s sustaining the astronomically high number of incarcerations? Is it longer sentences? Also a safe bet, especially because those sentence lengths are no longer set by judges who have the advantage of hearing all the facts of a complicated case. Instead, they are being determined by overtired, excessively lobbied legislators who have to make relatively snap decisions on 200 pieces of legislation, and then rush home to raise money for their next campaigns.

This is not about architects unplugging prison producing CADD machines to reduce bed counts; this is about red-eyed legislators setting social policy through the way they allocate public funds against perceived priorities. Now, some of the folks I met at the debate had the impression that our industry has a key to the legislative cloakroom and regularly fills re-election coffers with more than spare change, and that is why we have so much legislation passed that requires a bed in return for a buck. But does anyone also want to discuss how hospitals, college dorms, electrical sub-stations or airports get funded?

The design community can change social policy by getting involved with "the process." But first we have to recognize that making sausage is different from eating it. The journalist-author Michael Kinsley once commented that all of us face a choice of remaining on the curb and watching, or joining the parade even if we aren’t familiar with the music. The issues surrounding the incarceration rate in America are as complex as calculus, and to suggest that by asking the design community to stop so we can sort out how many beds we really need has as much validity as asking architects to stop designing Wal-Marts until a better employee health insurance package emerges.

A Warning

But we have to start. The current trickle of state-funded prison projects has first to do with the economy and second, I hope, with an honest re-examination of who really needs to go to prison and for how long. The design community can’t do a lot to shift economic priorities, but it can do a great deal more to join in the debate about when is enough enough. One such debate is now under way in Congress in the form of The Second Chance Act of 2005 (H.R. 1704). As the title implies, the act would provide federal assistance to systems that can demonstrate how we can have safe communities and lower crime rates, and better prepare offenders to contribute positively to society.

But I warn you. At the same time Congress is addressing mandatory sentencing policies and re-entry programs, individual states will pass at least 50 acts making incarceration the preferred sanction. On this, I agree with Raphael Sperry, President of ADPSR and author of "the pledge:" We will effect no change if we are content to simply watch the parade. A collective voice must be heard that questions the continued use of incarceration as the first and only answer to crime and its consequences.

So, do we sign "the pledge" (which, by the way, can be found at the ADPSR web site)? Or, do we rationalize that if we don’t plan and design better prisons, then we’ll be back where we were in the ’70s when conditions of confinement in America were pretty miserable? And besides, if those who have invested their careers in making conditions not only better but the best in the world stop designing, then someone else will. And that someone just may not have the necessary skills. People get hurt in prison.

In Act II of Julius Caesar, the man himself reminds Calpurnia that, "Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but once." I have always thought that was a slogan for the euthanasia lobby or the battle cry of a deranged drill sergeant, but as I contemplate the genuine urging of "one of us" to thoughtfully consider if what we are doing is really producing a better and safer society, Caesar’s comments are haunting.

The story doesn’t end there, however, as Jules goes on to say, "Of all the wonders I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come." I will resist seeing that as a fatalist philosophy suggesting that prisons are what we have and therefore what we have to have. Relative to the movement to stop prison construction, I am going to believe that Caesar was suggesting that we have nothing to fear but the fear of not asking the complete question: Are more prisons the best, and only, answer?

Read the pledge. Enjoy the parade.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C.

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