Prison Design and Its Consequences: The Architect’s Dilemma

Prison Design and Its Consequences: The Architect's Dilemma

Throughout California’s prison system, 30,000 inmates participated in a July 9 hunger strike as a gesture of solidarity for those incarcerated at the KMD Architects-designed Pelican Bay State Prison, the 275-acre super-maximum security facility where living conditions fall under one of two extremes: stifled overcrowding, where the risk of contracting contagious diseases runs high, or solitary confinement, a psychologically debilitating practice that the UN Human Rights Council condemned as torture in 2011. Although there’s no telling the extent to which the architects at KMD could have foreseen this dehumanizing climate springing from their design, California-based architect and Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) founder Raphael Sperry directs us to an ugly truth: they are inherently complicit in the outcome.

“Frankly, there are some buildings that never should have been built – buildings that constitute human rights violations by their very existence,” Sperry argues on the American Civil Liberties Union blog, and Pelican Bay’s design offers scant evidence to the contrary. Beyond the “significant life cycle cost savings” touted at its 1989 opening, the prison’s most prominent architectural feature is the X-shaped formation of white buildings on the desolate grounds that make up the Security Housing Unit, the focus of the prisoners’ protest. Its interior consists of 8×10-foot, soundproof, poured-concrete cells with remote controlled doors and no windows, where approximately 1,000 inmates with alleged gang affiliations spend up to 23 hours a day with the sole company of their walls…