Why is it that the U.S. is exporting our prison designs to Latin American countries, such as Colombia, Mexico, and now Haiti? To my amazement, the rationale has now shifted. In the drug war framework, the implication was that Mexican and Colombian prisons were not effective enough at stopping gang communications across prison walls, while American designs and management styles would be (although the frequency of smuggling everything from cigarettes to drugs to cell phones into prisons by prison guards in the U.S. is high). Now, the claim is that we are simply doing this out of our concern for the wellbeing of Haitians. "By constructing new prisons that are consistent with international human rights standards, the (U.S. State) Department seeks to alleviate this overcrowding and to reduce the spread of disease and violence."
By all accounts, prison conditions in Haiti are horrible, but on the other hand by all accounts the police and justice system there are highly corrupt too. Is building a pair of new prisons really the place to start? As an architect I understand the importance of good design and the effects that shaping space can have on human behavior, but I also understand the limitations. To take another example from Latin America, during the rightist military dictatorship in Argentina, office buildings and suburban villas were used as secret interrogation facilities. There’s nothing in those designs that made it easier or harder to do the dirty work there – the outcome was a result of the horrific nature of the regime. And they tortured people in “proper” prisons, too. In Haiti, A brutal, corrupt local cop is not going to become a human-rights observing jailer because he is given a new jail and a new handbook – even when the handbook is written by international experts and the jail is designed to the highest standards by the best designers.
Building a culture of human rights is a major project that is very difficult for outsiders to accomplish. In some ways, the best thing we can do is to live up to the highest standards ourselves and then undertake small-scale, person-to-person diplomacy to help export our culture of human rights elsewhere. Where does that put U.S. prison-building expertise? Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and many other international human rights groups have repeatedly criticized the criminal justice system and prisons in the U.S. for torture (especially in the form of solitary confinement), inhumane conditions, racism, and mass incarceration. U.S. prison construction often improves physical conditions for some prisoners, but has also included over 50 prisons dedicated solely to solitary isolation over the past 30 years, and has enabled the development of a system of mass incarceration that flies in the face of simple justice.
Living up to the highest standards of human rights here at home is an immense challenge. By comparison, building a new prison in Haiti is easy, but it won’t be much of an accomplishment.