Architects: Stop Building Prisons! Fighting Human Rights Abuses Within One’s Own Profession

Photo credit: Matthew Ansley
Raphael Sperry.
Photo credit: Noah Kalina

Raphael Sperry is an architect, sustainable building consultant, and human rights advocate. President of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), he leads national campaigns to ban the design of spaces that violate human rights and to promote restorative alternatives to incarceration. His design and consulting work focuses on “net positive” design for buildings that regenerate energy, water and natural systems.

Raphael spoke at the 2017 Bioneers Conference as part of a panel discussion examining how engaged scientific, technological and design professionals can ensure the careful weighing of social justice, public health and environmental impacts becomes a cornerstone of all decisions made in their disciplines. An edited transcript of that talk is below.


ADPSR (Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility) is an independent 501(c)3 organization. Its origins go back to the early 80s when a bunch of varied groups united by their fear of the nuclear threat came together after the election of Ronald Reagan and the reigniting of a hostile phase of the Cold War. One outgrowth of that was that an exchange of American and Soviet architects was organized. The goal was to demonstrate that even though our governments were being hostile towards each other, within our shared professional world we could approach each other as citizens and colleagues and partners with mutual respect and learn from each other and have a peaceful citizen-to-citizen relationship. 

We insisted on standing up and saying that it’s not acceptable for the government to prepare for a war that’s going to destroy all of life on earth, all of human culture, and everything that our professions have created, i.e. the built stuff of civilization.

Raphael Sperry

Another thing we did was organize a competition to design a bomb shelter as an educational tool: the point was to state clearly that architectural professionals were not willing to be complicit in trying to make it look as though we could fight and win a nuclear war. We insisted on standing up and saying that it’s not acceptable for the government to prepare for a war that’s going to destroy all of life on earth, all of human culture, and everything that our professions have created, i.e. the built stuff of civilization.

That was an example of how you can respond as a profession when you’re facing what seems like an overwhelming issue. ADPSR has over the years tried to identify the big issues that we’re confronting as a society and to single out the things that are specific to our professional identity, the pieces that we work on. For example, in the face of the growing environmental crisis, we were one of the early organizations to dive into what in the ’90s we called ecological building, a forerunner of what was later called “green building.” In fact a number of local green building organizations such as the West Coast Green Trade Show and the Build It Green Certification Program in Alameda County were spinoffs of ADPSR’s Northern California chapter. We published one of the first books on the topic in the mid 1990s, a compilation that described how to use building materials that had recycled content and/or were made from sustainably sourced materials, that were recyclable, that were nontoxic and so on.

A lot of that work has become mainstream in the profession, which is great. ADPSR has always been an organization that tries to be at the forefront of things and to speak about emerging issues before they become well known. We have tried to function as a conscience for our profession, but when you do that and you’re ahead of the curve, it’s not easy for the people in your profession to accept what you’re saying, especially the first time you bring it up. After a couple of years, though, they get used to your message, and gradually it becomes more acceptable. 

In the 2000s we began publishing a lot of books through our New Village Press imprint, mostly about more equitable and rational community building and planning. We also developed an international affiliation called ARC-Peace starting in the ’80s. It’s a really interesting organization in that it has really good representation from both the developing and the developed world. It was long headquartered in Sweden, but its headquarters is now in Spain.

Architecture and Prisons

More recently the campaign that I’ve been most personally involved with is one that is trying to bring the voice of architects, designers and planners to challenge mass incarceration, which is one of the biggest social justice challenges facing the United States. Our level of incarceration sets us apart from the rest of the world. It’s part of a larger culture of violence in the U.S, which of course includes our wars, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. We have to recognize that those wars spring from a culture that’s willing to accept violence as an instrument of public policy, and that it’s exactly that same acceptance that is comfortable with police brutality, horrible prisons and a criminal justice system that destroys communities of color in the United States.

And our professional community is implicated in that culture. Prisons are buildings. Architects have produced those buildings. No civilization in the history of the world has ever developed a penal system nearly as large as what the United States has today, and many architects had to design those facilities. Historically, some of the prison builders were well intentioned. The first prisons were called penitentiaries, often run by Quakers who of course have a history of social justice activism. The idea was that people would go to the penitentiary and become penitent; they’d be given a Bible; they’d study and return to God and become members of the good community again. But a penitentiary built in the 1830s by the 1890s had become a total hellhole. It was originally supposed to have light and air and be a healthy place conducive to rest and rehabilitation. Instead, it had become violent, abusive, dangerous, filled with disease. 40, 50 years later they built “reformatories” that were hellholes. Later they called them “correctional facilities.” The names changed but each “reform” was as bad as the one before, and by the 1970s there were major riots in prisons all across the country. We had recreated the same problems over and over again.

Prisons are buildings. Architects have produced those buildings. No civilization in the history of the world has ever developed a penal system nearly as large as what the United States has today, and many architects had to design those facilities.

Raphael Sperry

We started a campaign called the Prison Design Boycott to encourage people to start thinking about alternatives to incarceration. We advocated that all of us in our profession turn down commissions to design prisons and say: “Designers are being asked to solve the wrong problem. Don’t come to us anymore and ask us to design better prisons when you’ve got 2.2 million people in thousands of new prisons already, and the country is getting worse as a result of it, with more injustice, not less. We want to design what’s really needed—affordable housing, mental health centers, etc., all of the things that are not provided to people in the very communities we’re over-policing and targeting with our prisons.”

That first campaign generated a lot of dialogue, and quite a bit of pushback too. We expected initial resistance, but it was pretty hard for our opponents to come up with credible defenses of, say, the “supermax” prisons in which some detainees are in permanent solitary confinement in tiny cells; or the forever infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which was actually designed by American architects and with British funding for the Iraqi government in the 1980s, when we were allied with Saddam Hussein in his incredibly bloody war against Iran. It was pretty hard for them to defend the facility at Guantanamo Bay, the first prison built specifically to deny people their constitutional rights in the United States, and that is actually a copy of a federal prison in Indiana.

And then there’s the California lethal injection chamber just over in San Quentin. There was a prolonged lawsuit in California that had very effectively stopped the implementation of the death penalty. That suit argued that using the state’s old execution chamber constituted cruel and unusual punishment because the facilities were so antiquated. Eventually the courts agreed, so the California Department of Corrections decided that in order to keep executing prisoners they had to build a new facility. They spent over a million dollars designing and building it, and they were really proud of it. “Look,” they said, “We’ve met the court standards and we’re ready to go.” They published photos and displayed the model of the chamber because they were so proud of its design. In order for that execution chamber to be built, someone had to use professional skill and professional tools, such as architectural software, to design it.

This offers a crystal clear example of the fact that professional expertise and tools are not value neutral. In this instance, they were used to build a killing machine, quite literally. This is something students aspiring to be professionals and those already established in a profession need to understand. Just because your expertise seems technical and removed from the social and political conflicts of the society and just because you receive a license to practice your craft, you are not absolved of moral responsibility about how your work is used. All these buildings I have mentioned have in common that the activities that take place inside them are gross human rights violations. And they were built specifically to house those activities. Those who designed those buildings are not insulated from what happens inside them. They participated in the intention behind them. They have to take responsibility for their involvement, in these cases, in torture, in inhumane confinement, in degrading treatment of human beings.

So we sought to mobilize people and to build a campaign around these issues. We dug through the AIA (American Institute of Architects—the main professional body of architects) code of ethics, and we found that it actually already contained some language that said that members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors. So we asked the AIA: “How come some of your members don’t seem to have a problem designing execution chambers?” But the AIA told us that the language in question just applied to non-discrimination within professional practice. They weren’t prepared to extend the concept of “human rights” to the actual end use of the buildings their members designed.

So we had a pretty simple proposal. We told them: “Why don’t you add a simple rule to your code of ethics that says members shall not design spaces intended for killing or torture or other human rights violations? We’ll even write it for you to save you a little bit of time and legal research because we’ve studied the question in great detail.” It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the national organization’s leadership didn’t go for it, so we did a bunch of organizing around it. We got three chapters, the San Francisco, Portland and Boston chapters of the AIA to support us. We worked with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other like-minded organizations as well. I think AIA is feeling the heat, but so far they have not approved it.

Some people argued with us that we should just focus on positive aspects of architecture. Architects love designing schools, universities, hospitals and clinics and cutting edge green buildings. Why not highlight those positive projects? But we felt that if you want to be in a profession that’s dedicated to providing people with housing, healthcare facilities and schools, you can’t be out there at the same time killing people and torturing people through designing prisons. There are some projects you should never do, like inhumane prisons and execution chambers. Not every design project can be totally great, but there has to be a minimal level of moral clarity in a profession. Architects can’t, on their own, transform the criminal justice system or implement the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, but they can try to be as strong a force for progress as possible and at least not to participate in crimes against humanity.

In that spirit, ADPSR has just recently spun off a project that we started a couple years ago called Designing Justice + Designing Spaces. It’s the first architecture firm in the nation specifically focused on designing centers for peacemaking, restorative justice, reentry housing for people coming out of prison, and other projects that contribute to transforming the criminal justice system. I urge you all to learn more about that, and I urge all of you, whatever profession you are in, to work to mobilize your peers to help transform your spheres of activity into vehicles of progress towards peace and justice.

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