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A conversation with "justice architects" - part 2

A conversation with "justice architects" - part 2
Raphael Sperry - Fri Oct 04, 2013 @ 03:31PM
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Following the introduction, other participants shared their thoughts. This is my summary:

  • At least one AIA national director is aware of this proposal and had contacted the AAJ Advisory Group for Input. The Advisory Group may (or may not?) try to formulate a position to inform the National Board but the AG has not received input from AAJ members yet. [This discussion would be a good place to share your input. The National Board is the body with the authority to change the Code of Ethics.]
  • The last two meetings of the American Correctional Association (ACA) had keynote speeches related to solitary confinement and its mental health issues. This is an issue that ACA is keenly aware of.
  • Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is turning against the use of segregation, in part due to a recent expose in the New York Times. New York State and New York City (riker’s Island) are also turning away from segregation.
  • The use of the term “torture” is inflammatory and unfair. “Torture” refers to having the intent to harm an individual to gain information or for other purposes -- even if people are harmed in U.S. prisons it is not with that kind of intent. [I agreed about the definition of torture, but responded that human rights treaties ban “torture or other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” and that U.S. conditions of concern fall under the latter part of the prohibition.]


  • A lot of people in segregation have serious mental health issues and also have committed very serious and violent crimes. What is an appropriate way to treat those people?
  • Does the Healthcare knowledge community have any position on secure mental health facilities?
  • AIA’s adoption of a ban on death chambers would increase pride in AIA membership.
  • It might be easier to get a ban on death chambers alone, leaving out the issue of solitary confinement.
  • Some people present said they opposed the death penalty.
  • The death penalty is the law; don’t architects have to build facilities the law requests?
  • The precedent set by the various medical associations not to participate in executions is important and should be taken note of. But what impact does it have? [I replied that in many states executions have been halted by the inability to find doctors who will participate. Also, the drug companies that make the drugs used for lethal injections will not sell those products to U.S. states anymore, because they do not want their company associated with the act of intentionally killing people. Does AIA want architects to have that association?]
  • Some of the terms should be better defined – for instance “solitary confinement” and “prolonged” solitary confinement. [I replied that the references to the various international human rights treaties in the proposed commentary is intended to direct the AIA National Ethics Council towards the large body of interpretation of those terms that has been developed by the international human rights system.]
  • It would not be fair to hold architects accountable for unintended uses of spaces we design. How would we know if a space is intended for “prolonged” solitary confinement. [I replied that the proposal refers to the design intent of spaces. Typical segregation rooms in small facilities are probably not intended for prolonged isolation, but a large facility like Pelican Bay State Prison in California, with 1,000 isolation cells, will clearly hold people for over 15 days, and provides a clear case of that intent. Gray areas, if they came up, would be examined on a case-by-case basis by the National Ethics Council.]
  • As an alternative, AAJ could write a white paper or position paper on Best Practices in correctional design, and get AIA to endorse it. This would highlight the positive aspects of design instead of the “members shall not” language of the ethics proposal. [I noted that most of the Rules in the Ethics Code define what members shall not do in negative terms, while the unenforceable Standards have more positive language. I suggested AAJ could endorse the Ethics proposal along with writing a paper to explain best practices to accompany it.]
  • Supermax prisons and death chambers aren’t being built anymore and are too rare to merit this special attention. [I replied that the State of Arizona was currently designing a 500 bed supermax prison, and that as recently as 2010 California had rebuilt its execution chamber.]
  • A law professor in attendance noted that there is a difference between “human rights” (referred to in the AIA Code) and U.S. Constitutional rights. The Constitution only forbids “cruel and unusual” punishment, which has been interpreted to mean it has to be both cruel and unusual: if something is cruel but everyone is doing it, it is not unconstitutional. Courts have overturned “cruel” practices by noting an “evolving standard of decency” away from those practices, and the position of professional associations is a significant piece of evidence that courts look at to make that determination. AIA could have a big impact not only on future design but on current practice.


Towards the end of the conversation, a Canadian attendee commended the group for having the dialogue. While he noted that Canada does not have the death penalty and does not use solitary confinement (or at least not at nearly the rate in the U.S.), he could not think of a group of Canadian architects who had sat down to investigate their ethical obligations about a weighty topic like this as seriously as our AAJ group had done.

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