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A conversation with "justice architects" - part 1

A conversation with "justice architects" - part 1
Raphael Sperry - Fri Oct 04, 2013 @ 03:35PM
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At the recent conference of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice in Portland, OR, a week ago, about 20 AAJ members held an discussion on the topic of ethics, human rights, and justice design. AAJ is the unit of AIA where designers of courthouses, police stations, jails, and prisons gather for information exchange and networking. While not granting ADPSR the panel we requested to present our campaign, after some back and forth they did help us to hold an informal conversation at the conference. Both ADPSR Board Member Deanna van Buren and I attended, and it was quite an intense and focused discussion. Certainly not all AAJ members agreed with our proposal to prohibit the design of execution chambers or spaces intended for torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, including prolonged solitary confinement. In this post, I will summarize the rationale for the change I presented to the AAJ group. In the following post, which might be more interesting if you are already familiar with ADPSR’s proposal, I summarize the responses to participants in the conversation.

Special thanks to Prof. Keramet Reiter and Rev. Whitney Edwards who attended this conversation as guests of mine. They provided great moral support, knowledge, and guidance to the conversation.


So to begin, here is a summary of the initial presentation:

I started off by applauding AIA for having on our current code the following: Ethics Standard 1.4: Human Rights:

Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.

This is something we can be proud of. However, it is not an enforceable “Rule” of the Code, and the only enforceable rule related to human rights prohibits discrimination in hiring – a worthy issue, but certainly not the total scope of how human rights relate to architectural practice. In fact, some building projects violate human rights and should be addressed here. I argued that AIA can and should do more for human rights, and that it is an opportunity for AIA to demonstrate leadership in an area of broad public concern, joining other prominent professions. The architectural profession collectively is responsible for the design of the built environment and must use our position to protect the public’s health, safety, and wellbeing from buildings that violate human rights.

I shared a handout that included the following points:

Good for Architects and for AIA:

  • Recent AIA Ethics Code amendments promoting environmental sustainability and pro bono practice reaffirm architects’ responsibility to the public. Strengthening our human rights standard will continue this positive trend.
  • The American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Nurses Association, and many other professional associations all already have ethics codes prohibiting participation in executions, torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. AIA should join them.
  • This amendment will support designers who want to design more humane environments for people in prison by protecting them from being undercut by others who are willing to meet client demands for abusive spaces.
  • This proposal is not retroactive. It does not penalize or “blame” architects who designed these facilities in the past.
  • “Improvements” to these building types are not necessary or reasonable. There is no “better” way to design a room intended to kill or degrade someone.

Supports Human Rights:

  • International Human Rights NGOs and the U.N. have called for the end of the death penalty repeatedly from 1968 until today.
  • The U.S. has 37 U.S. Death Rows that have completed over >2,000 executions since 1976.
  • In 2012, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture defined solitary confinement of juveniles, the mentality ill, or anyone else in excess of 15 days as a form of torture or other prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. We should respond to this change.
  • There are 45 dedicated “supermax” prisons in the U.S. holding ~20,000 people in prolonged solitary confinement. The typical cell is 7’ x 12’. The average detention is 5 years or longer in some states but the longest detention is over 40 years. Youth and the mentally ill are routinely held in solitary confinement across the U.S.
  • Prolonged solitary confinement (i.e. over 15 days) causes profound and irreversible psychological damage, because the human psyche needs social interaction and environmental stimulation to maintain its basic stability. Frequent symptoms of solitary confinement include severe hallucinations, uncontrollable rage, depression, anxiety, and decompensation. While around 4% of prisoners are kept in solitary confinement, around 50% of all prison suicides occur in solitary.



I also pointed out that ADPSR has received endorsements for our proposal from a large and growing group of human rights and design organizations. Endorsers include Amnesty International and  the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (which represented over 800 congregations of many faiths concerned about the use of solitary confinement; one Episcopal Reverend joined our conversation as a guest ), and DesignCorps, which runs the Public Interest Design Institute. In addition, ADPSR has organized an online petition that has received over 1,000 signatures, many from architects.

For reference, the specific proposal ADPSR is recommending is the following. I encouraged AAJ members to share thoughts on potential edits that would improve the quality of the proposal.

Proposed Rule 1.402:

Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.

Proposed Commentary:

The Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibit “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (ICCPR Article 7) and ICCPR also requires that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person” (Article 10). Prolonged solitary confinement has been identified as a form of torture or prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United Nations Human Rights Council, Committee Against Torture, and the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.


Please see Part 2 of this entry for the conversation that followed -- I get called "inflammatory" in public!

(thanks to Catherine Chan, AIA, and a member of the AAJ Advisory Group for the pictures of the conversation in process)

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