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Prison FAQs

Won't this lead to prison overcrowding?
Won't someone else design prisons anyway?
Is this related to abuses at Abu Ghraib prison?
What was the Stanford Prison Experiment?

If we stop building prisons and keep arresting more people, won't we have prison overcrowding? And hasn't prison overcrowding been a complaint of prison reformers for many years that U.S. prisons have finally improved on?

If we stopped building more prisons and did nothing else, then logically we would end up with crowded prisons. That is not the intent of this campaign. Central to ADPSR's vision of a better society is fundamental reform of our legal system. This includes the revocation of "three-strikes" laws, ending the "War on Drugs" policies that give long sentences for small-time drug possession and other trivial, non-violent activities, and the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing that allows prosecutors, rather than judges, to set prison terms. Even simple administrative changes such as modification to parole return rules would sizably shrink the current prison population and improve the state of justice in the United States. Writing laws is the domain of lawyers and legislators, and ADPSR supports the many legal groups who have proposed these suggested justice reforms. Architects, designers, and planners are not responsible for writing laws, but we must take responsibility for the parts of the legal system that we are responsible for, and that starts with prison buildings. ADPSR's prison boycott campaign sends the message that as design professionals, we are ready to do our part to move towards a more just society. The pledges of hundreds and thousands of design professionals will send a powerful and highly visible message that this reform is overdue. They will also mark the leadership of the design professionals that are dedicated to envisioning the future of our built environment.

As for overcrowding itself, ADPSR agrees that crowded conditions in prisons are even more deplorable than "humane" prison conditions. However, as we explain elsewhere, we also believe that the U.S. prison system is fundamentally unjust and inhumane. Repeated calls for prison reform have only created new perversions of the decent intentions that often initiate new forms of incarceration - such as the mind-shattering solitary confinement regimen of early American prisons intended for penitence by well-meaning Quakers. Prison capacity never stays unused - building new prisons to reduce overcrowding, as has happened over the last twenty years in the United States, has been a direct component of the drastic increase in the numbers of people incarcerated. Faced with the "if you build it, they will come" current fact of prison construction, ADPSR believes that prison reform will always fail to meet our society's real needs for alternatives to incarceration.

How can your boycott actually work? Won't there always be architects who are not opposed to prisons, or are willing to set aside their ethical objections at the right price?

Probably not all architects will agree to boycott designing prisons. But that does not make our protest useless. Boycotts and other forms of protest work in many ways simultaneously - it did not take anywhere near full participation for the boycott of investment in South Africa to add substantial pressure to end apartheid, nor did Cesar Chavez's boycott of California grapes need full participation to make the treatment of farmworkers a national issue. Even absent the ability to directly impede prison projects, the pledges of design professionals to refuse to work on prisons will help to raise awareness of the problems inherent in the prison system. This boycott is a powerful tool with which to change public perceptions of the prison system, and thereby change the willingness of government decision-makers to build new prisons.

What is the connection between the Prison Design Boycott and the revelations about prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere in the "War on Terrorism"?

ADPSR believes that the abuses of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York (where "special registration" detainees were held following 9/11) is indicative of typical problems in prisons, which is why we believe alternatives to incarceration are so strongly needed. It is in fact not surprising that some of the military police reservists who enacted the abuses were civilian prison guards outside of their reserve commitment - prisoner abuse by guards within U.S. prisons is well documented. Of course, it is totally unacceptable that the U.S. should treat foreigners this way, insulting, abusing, and killing them with impunity; the same is equally true of treatment for American prisoners.

The Bush Administration's response, to demolish the Abu Ghraib prison and replace it with a new maximum-security prison of American design, does little for anyone. The attempt to erase the memory of American abuse on the site will do little to ease the actual suffering people have experienced on that site. And of course a new maximum security prison only indicates the ongoing desire to dominate others - hardly the promise of freedom and democracy one could hope for. Shouldn't we build them a hospital instead?

What was the Stanford Prison Experiment and what does it mean for the Prison Design Boycott?

In the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, college students volunteering for a psychology experiment were divided into guards and prisoners and put in a prison-lie environment. The resulting brutality of the guards, and borne by the prisoners, was tolerated by the experimental staff until an outside visitor brought the crisis to their attention, at which point the experiment was terminated a week early. ADPSR agrees with the conclusions of the experiment leader, Philip Zimbardo, PhD.:

Prisons are places that demean humanity, destroy the nobility of human nature, and bring out the worst in social relations among people. They are as bad for the guards as the prisoners in terms of their destructive impact on self-esteem, sense of justice, and human compassion. Prisons are failed social-political experiments that continue to be places of evil and even to multiply, like the bad deeds of the sorcerer's apprentice, because the public is indifferent to what takes place in secret there and because politicians use them and fill them up as much as they can to demonstrate only that they are "tougher on crime" than their political opponents. The costs of extensive prison construction and of hiring many guards to oversee the many prisoners starting to fill these new prisons is already diminishing the limited state and county funds available for health, education, and welfare. A "mean-spirited" value system pervades many correctional operations, reducing programs for job training, rehabilitation, and physical exercise, and even limiting any individuality in appearance. Projections are dire at best for the future of corrections in the United States.

Copyright 2004 ADPSR unless otherwise noted.