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In presenting this proposal to AIA leaders, members, and others, ADPSR has encountered many questions and concerns. We invite you to think through the issues with us here, and submit additional questions to ethics (at) adpsr (dot) org.


AIA is the American Institute of Architects, the mainstream professional organization for architects – similar to the Bar Association for lawyers, or the American Medical Association for doctors. AIA has about 80,000 members, representing about three quarters of all licensed architects in the United States.[1] ADPSR, Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility, is an independent membership organization.


The current (2012) AIA Code of Ethics refers to federal, state, and local laws; the federal Copyright Act; campaign financing laws; court and regulatory agency findings; and building codes. All of these are standards maintained by groups outside of AIA.


Yes. In all 50 states major buildings intended primarily for human habitation require a design prepared and stamped by a licensed architect. Prisons are not excepted. Some architecture firms advertise their experience designing supermax prisons. The most recent execution-related project ADSPR is aware of is the State of California’s rebuild of its execution chamber in 2010. The project received a full architectural design, and you can see a picture of the CAD model developed for the project below. The most recent supermax prisons completed were Colorado’s Centennial Correctional Facility in 2010 and the U.S. Navy’s Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility Camp 6, in 2006.


The experience of prolonged solitary isolation is profoundly disturbing to all who experience it. In supermax prisons, prisoners are kept in their cells for 22 – 23 hours per day (or for 24 hours under some circumstances), with a typical cell size around 7’ x 10’. One or two hours per day are allowed for individual exercise in a small, high-walled concrete yard considered “outdoors” and a shower every few days. Prisoners can sometimes hear other prisoners in the same cell pod shouting through cell fronts (which are commonly made of perforated metal), but many have stated that the noise from mentally ill cellmates yelling into the pod hall does not provide relief from the silence and lack of visual stimulation. Many supermax cells do not contain windows, while those that do are often positioned to allow no direct view of anything but empty sky.

The most modern supermaxes use automated doors so that prisoners can go between these activities without having to encounter prison guards. Guards deliver meals, mail, or other items through a slot in the cell door up to three times a day. Common other restrictions on prisoners in supermax include no or very few phone calls (sometimes one per month or less), a strictly limited number of books and personal possessions allowed in the cell, and no choice of diet. 

Social interaction is essential to human basic mental health. Psychologists have documented that typical supermax conditions produce extreme symptoms including acute confusional psychosis, massive anxiety, paranoia, impulse dyscontrol, random violence, and hallucinations.[2] People who are mentally ill and young people, whose mental capacities are still developing, suffer worse effects much faster when placed in isolation. While almost every architectural project aims to provide spaces for human activities in groups, like eating, working, playing, etc., supermax prisons are among the only buildings specifically designed to prevent group activities of any kind.

The American Bar Association publishes standards for prison conditions. As ABA’s testimony to the U.S. Senate stated:

The Standards forbid in all instances “extreme isolation,” which is defined to “include a combination of sensory deprivation, lack of contact with other persons, enforced idleness, minimal out - of - cell time, and lack of outdoor recreation.” (23-3.8). In short, while it may be necessary physically to separate prisoners who pose a threat to others, that separation does not necessitate the social and sensory isolation that has become routine.[3]


Let’s remember that “upholding human rights” is already in the AIA Code of Ethics. The human rights standard currently only has one rule within it, regarding employment discrimination. While important, employment discrimination is not the only area where architects might find themselves with human rights concerns, especially in light of the international criticism of execution chambers and supermax prisons in the United States on human rights grounds. AIA members deserve more detailed guidance on how they can reconcile client requests for those project types with a generalized responsibility to uphold human rights.

To consider one precedent, the American Medical Association specifically separates professional participation in executions (and torture) from personal moral decisions. The AMA Code of Ethics says:

An individual’s opinion on capital punishment is the personal moral decision of the individual. A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution. Physician participation in execution is defined generally as actions which would fall into one or more of the following categories: (1) an action which would directly cause the death of the condemned; (2) an action which would assist, supervise, or contribute to the ability of another individual to directly cause the death of the condemned; (3) an action which could automatically cause an execution to be carried out on a condemned prisoner. (emphasis added)

Clearly, AMA thinks that professional ethics include defining the responsibilities of licensed professions to protect the public, which is quite different from taking a poll of doctors to see how many oppose capital punishment. In the same vein, the California Medical Association “believes that physician participation in capital punishment threatens the public's trust in physicians.”[4] ADPSR believes that public trust in architects will be enhanced if the public knows we will not design buildings intended to execute, torture, or degrade anyone.


In 2012-2013 AIA has been engaged in a thoughtful strategic planning process titled “Repositioning the Institute.” This initiative states that AIA is “the definitive voice of architecture in an increasingly design-savvy culture.”  It aims to position AIA as “a visionary member organization providing advocacy, leadership, and resources for architects to design a better world.” (emphasis added) One of the obstacles identified to claiming this position is that “members and staff feel that AIA is often slow to take a stand on important issues that define and impact the architecture profession”[5]

In another recent statement (among many similar statements), AIA said:

Now is the time for architects to embrace change and be leaders for change. Architects are poised to seize the moment to design for a preferred future
Architects have the power to influence a broader societal cultureThe AIA should be the organization for matters of civic and cultural engagement, and its members should be guiding positive change in communities.[6] (emphasis added)

Issues of human rights are important matters of civic engagement, and ones that require civil society leadership and advocacy for progress to be made.[7] More execution chambers and supermax prisons are not part of a better world or a preferred future. This issue is really an excellent opportunity for AIA to follow through on the vision of its Repositioning initiative, to take a stand on important issues, embrace change, and to influence our broader societal culture. We hope they will seize the chance.


If setting the precedent for AIA to prohibit member participation in unpopular building types was part of this proposal, ADPSR would not have advanced it. However, this proposal is a human rights rule, not a (un)popularity contest. This proposed ethics rule does not require or even suggest that AIA would prohibit design of any other building type, because the examples of buildings being designed with the intent of violating human rights are so rare and so specific. Establishing that an intended activity is a violation of human rights is a very high standard. This proposal cites the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as interpreted 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. These international bodies do not have positions against activities common to any other building type, nor will they in the forseeable future. Similarly, the American Medical Association position prohibiting doctors from participating in executions, now over three decades old, has not led to a cascade of other prohibited procedures. We do not anticipate that AIA’s position proposed here will, either.

With regards to abortion clinics in particular, we recognize the importance of this concern. AIA, and architects generally, should never be complicit in plans to deny women access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion. Our proposed amendment would not have this outcome. To cite AMA as a model again, their ethics code prohibits execution and torture but also specifically protects doctors’ rights to perform abortions.[8]

More generally, the U.N. human rights system treats women’s reproductive rights as a positive part of human rights (for instance, in saying that everyone has the right to determine the number and spacing of their children). The U.N.’s World Health Organization has published guidance on providing safe abortions for national health systems based on a foundation of international human rights treaties.[9] Many U.N. bodies view anti-abortion laws that lead to thousands of women’s deaths in unsafe abortions every year as potential human rights violations, and is heading towards ever broader recognition of abortion rights as part of human rights overall. Using human rights as the standard in the Code of Ethics protects AIA from entering a “slippery slope” that might ever lead to restrictions on abortion clinics or other building types.


The AIA’s Ethics Code is only applicable to the design of new buildings and this rule, if adopted, would not be retroactive. Typically no more than one adult supermax facility or execution chamber is proposed each year, and in some years none at all. (However, some juvenile detention spaces contain some areas for segregated holding that would need to be reviewed to ensure that there is no intent to hold juveniles in unacceptable conditions of isolation.) The current 50 or so supermax prisons (and smaller areas of prisons dedicated to solitary confinement), 37 or so execution chambers, and existing juvenile facilities would not be changed directly by this policy. 

This rule would also not apply to the design of new conventional prisons. Prisoners in conventional prisons have “dayrooms,” shared outdoor exercise yards, and other opportunities to have a level of social interaction that can maintain their mental health. While ADPSR believes strongly that the U.S. prison system is far too large – with a per-capita incarceration rate eight to ten times that of other developed countries --  and grossly unjust towards the poor and racial minorities – with African-Americans making up 40% of the prison population but only 13% of the general population, and only 1% of the architectural profession – this measure only addresses the specific and serious human rights abuses associated with execution chambers and the use of solitary confinement.


The maximum sanction under AIA’s Code of Ethics is expulsion from the organization, which is a voluntary membership (architectural licenses are granted by State boards). AIA membership is valuable to most architecture firms, so it’s unlikely that anyone would give up their AIA membership in order to pursue a very rare project type. Nor does ADPSR want to see AIA members ejected using this provision. Instead, we believe that architects’ refusal to design these spaces would be a powerful way to reduce human rights violations in the United States.

Just as significantly, U.S. constitutional claims about the “cruel and unusual” nature of solitary confinement rely on showing an “evolving standard of decency” that no longer finds the practice acceptable. AIA’s position would be a significant demonstration of an evolution in the standards of decency in prison design and could eventually lead to a widespread reduction in human rights violations in existing prisons in the United States.


An important precedent here again is that the American Medical Association code of ethics prohibits doctors from participating in executions and torture in any way. The refusal of doctors has caused delays in the ability of some states to carry out legally ordered executions. One doctor who had actually performed executions said that if he had known about the AMA position, “I never would have gotten involved.”[10] By extension, AIA’s position matters.

With regard to architecture, the larger firms that are prepared to design complex “supermax” prisons are generally AIA member firms, and they typically offer many other kinds of prison designs. We think that they would be in a much stronger position to assist their justice system clients in making sure their projects do not violate human rights standards with this ethics code amendment in place. We hope they would not want to risk their good standing in AIA in order to pursue the tiny number of projects that are so harsh that they draw the condemnation of the international human rights community.


Simply put, there isn’t much room for “worse” conditions in the design of an execution chamber. 

Regarding solitary confinement, this ethics proposal would provide architects with the ground to stand on so they could work with their clients who ask for “supermax” prisons about alternative ways to provide security without violating human rights. In the longer term, this ethical position by AIA could be a way to improve prison conditions through de-legitimizing the use of solitary confinement.


The alternative to not executing people is having them serve long sentences. European countries tend to have maximum sentences of 30-40 years (even for the most horrific crimes); in the U.S. we tend to have life sentences and in some states life without parole.

The alternative to supermax prisons is managing difficult inmates in more conventional maximum-security prisons that allow for enough congregate activity to sustain psychological well-being. The fact that you can run a prison system without resorting to long-term solitary confinement is well established: prior to the 1980s, it was the norm in the U.S. What has changed is not the violent propensity of our prisoners but the social attitude towards them. Even today, about six states have no supermaxes at all and don't have problems with their prison systems. States that have recently closed their supermax prisons, including Maine and Mississippi, have found that overall levels of violence in their prison systems fell.

International human rights standards also demand that juveniles and the mentally ill should never be kept in solitary confinement, period. For these especially vulnerable populations, the harmful impacts of solitary confinement occur much faster, with greater severity, and may be irreversibly life-altering. There are many places where difficult and even violent youth are handled with safety and respect but without solitary confinement. The risk that solitary confinement will be overused when it is available to the operators of juvenile detention facilities is simply too great to provide space for the practice. See, for example, the use of so-called “reflection cottages” at a youth facility in Colorado, where kids were kept in windowless rooms for weeks at a time. Who thought it was a good idea to build those as part of a juvenile facility, and did they consider the human rights implications? Because the damage to those youth may be irreversible, we can only wish that the designers had known at the time the tragic outcomes we now expect today. We must work now to ensure that designers of juvenile facilities in the future will be better informed through the AIA Code of Ethics.


[1] AIA Facts, Figures, and the Profession: http://www.aia.org/press/AIAS077761

[2] See for instance Stuart Grassian,Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement, Journal of Law & Policy Vol. 22:325: http://law.wustl.edu/Journal/22/p325Grassian.pdf


[3] http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/resources/transcripts/upload/061912RecordSubmission-Durbin.pdf

[7] In fact, the U.N. general assembly agrees, saying: “Individuals, groups, institutions and non-governmental organizations have an important role to play and a responsibility in safeguarding democracy, promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms and contributing to the promotion and advancement of democratic societies, institutions and processes.” Resolution 53/144. Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

[8] "The Principles of Medical Ethics of the AMA do not prohibit a physician from performing an abortion in accordance with good medical practice and under circumstances that do not violate the law. (III, IV)" http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/physician-resources/medical-ethics/code-medical-ethics/opinion201.page?

[9] “UN treaty monitoring bodies, regional and national courts have given increasing attention to the issue of abortion during the past decades, including maternal mortality due to unsafe abortion, criminalization of abortion, and restrictive legislation that leads women to obtain illegal and unsafe abortions. Increasingly they have called upon States to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services to women and adolescents, eliminate regulatory and administrative barriers that impede women’s access to safe abortion services and provide treatment for abortion complications. If they do not do so, States may not meet their treaty and constitutional obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to life, the right to non-discrimination, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and the rights to privacy, confidentiality, information and education. UN treaty monitoring body recommendations and regional court decisions to States include the following examples:

- Take action to prevent unsafe abortion, including by amending restrictive laws that threaten women’s, including adolescents’, lives
- Provide legal abortion in cases where the continued pregnancy endangers the health of women, including adolescents
- Provide legal abortion in cases of rape and incest
- Amend laws that criminalize medical procedures, including abortion, needed only by women and/or that punish women who undergo those procedures ...
- Ensure timely access to a range of good-quality sexual and reproductive health services, including for adolescents, which are delivered in a way that ensures a woman’s fully informed consent, respects her dignity, guarantees her confidentiality and is sensitive to her needs and perspectives…”


- Remove third-party authorization requirements that interfere with women’s and adolescents’ right to make
decisions about reproduction and to exercise control over their bodies