The question about better prison design often takes two different forms: can a “better” prison design improve conditions for people in prison, or can it improve the US prison system? One way we see a concern for the collection of individual, the other way for the broader notion of society. (It’s kind of like how anthropology approaches a question versus sociology.)
Given that ADPSR is for “social responsibility” perhaps it’s no surprise that I favor the question about society and the prisons system’s impacts on it. Many architects who design prisons and jails take more the individual view, working to improve individual conditions. In the particular case of the US prison system, I think the broader social analysis is a necessary prerequisite for contextualizing the individual experiences of people within in, but in general these views aren’t inherently in conflict – we are all individuals and we all live with others. There is truth in both anthropology and sociology (unless of course you are Margaret Thatcher, who famously claimed “there is no such thing as society” while she set about dismantling programs meant to sustain it).
Architectural design often concerns itself most directly with the level of individual experience, with much of architecture school training devoted to thinking through how the shaping of space and manipulation of materiality will create effects on building occupants. But architecture also operates just as powerfully at the social scale, and concern about the social impacts of architecture have grown in recent years. Certainly the growth in green building looks at the responsibility that the building industry has beyond individual experiences – impacts on our climate, air, water, forests, and so on, and on public health – which has always been a social, rather than an individual, concern. The social impacts is also what the current attention on urbanism is all about. Urbanists demand that a building not only serve the needs of its occupants but also contribute to the public life of its city by shaping streets and public spaces that fall in between buildings, managing its impact on pedestrians and other traffic flows, and having positive impacts outside its property line.
Urbanism is now asking how buildings contribute to the larger city they are part of; ADPSR asks how prisons contribute to the larger system and society they are part of. That’s probably why our critique of how badly broken the prison system – and how individual architectural accomplishments can’t solve it – resonates with over 1,500 people who have signed our petition. Don’t forget to join them: http://www.tinyurl.com/aiaethics.