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Race and Punishment

One additional dimension of the injustice of solitary confinement and the death penalty cannot be overlooked: the role of race in who receives these harshest punishments. Nationally, African Americans are only 1% of the architectural profession and Hispanics are only 3%.[1] Meanwhile, at all levels of the criminal justice system, racial minorities and people of color are disproportionately impacted and treated more harshly. African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, charged more heavily by prosecutors, and sentenced to longer prison terms for exactly the same behavior as white people. They are also disproportionately held in solitary confinement. New York State, for example, has a population that is 14% African-American, a prison population that is 50% African-American, and a supermax population that is 60% African-American.[2] Arizona has a state population that is 30% Hispanic, a prison population that is 41% Hispanic, and a supermax population that is 51% Hispanic.[3]

cousino_supermx_picture.jpgThe use of the death penalty is even more racially biased.  More than half of all death-row prisoners are people of color, and 42% of death row prisoners are African American. The U.S. General Accounting Office’s study of executions found “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.”[4] Despite the roughly equal frequency of very serious crimes committed by people of all races, the death penalty is most frequently imposed when the offender is black and the victim is white. As the Equal Justice Institute observes, taking Alabama as an example: “Each year in Alabama, nearly 65% of all murders involve black victims, yet 80% of the people currently awaiting execution in Alabama were convicted of crimes in which the victims were white. Only 6% of all murders in Alabama involve black defendants and white victims, but over 60% of black death row prisoners have been sentenced for killing someone white.”[5]

It is widely held that a person’s race or ethnicity should not be a factor in their treatment by government, yet decades of compiling evidence have failed to change the clear patterns of racial bias in the use of solitary confinement and execution. Just as the persistence of the disproportionate use of these harshest punishment shows the ongoing presence of racism in America, ending these punishments would be a solid step in reversing that legacy. Clearly, the architectural profession also has a long way to go to become a profession that looks like the multiracial country we live in.  ADPSR urges our predominantly white and privileged profession to help redress the racial bias in the use of solitary confinement and executions by recognizing the human dignity and human rights of all people without regard to race and by ending the use of these punishments for everyone.

[2] NYCLU: “Boxed In”: http://www.boxedinny.org/

[4] http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/death-penalty/us-death-penalty-facts/death-penalty-and-race

photo: (c) Nicole Cousino, Concrete and Steel