The Architecture of Incarceration: Can Design Affect the Prison System?

Pelican Bay State Prison © Jelson25

On July 9th, 30,000 prison inmates across California took part in a hunger strike to show solidarity with those incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison, a ‘Solitary Housing Unit’ in which prisoners are incarcerated – some supposedly for years at a time – in solitary confinement.

Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) and its founder Raphael Sperry have made it their mission to make sure that architects are not complicit in designing prisons, even going so far as to form a petition asking the AIA to forbid members from designing execution chambers, ‘supermax’ prison facilities or solitary confinement facilities, as part of their statement that “members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.”

At ArchDaily we have already questioned whether it may actually be beneficial for architects to design prisons, rather than allowing them to be designed by less-trained people who could end up designing a space that is even less humane. Now, an article on Blouin Art Info seems to take a similar position: rather than retreating from the business of prison design altogether, architects should try to encourage prison design that facilitates rehabilitation rather than emphasizing punishment.

Halden Prison, Norway. Image Courtesy of Eric Møller Arkitekter

Read more about the architecture of incarceration after the break

Historically, architecture’s ability to express and enhance relationships of power might never have been more obvious than in Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon, a prison typology which he designed in the late 18th century. Bentham described his Panopticon as “a mill for grinding rogues honest” – since then, architecture’s relationship with the judicial system has been fraught with tension.

Halden Prison, Norway. Image Courtesy of Eric Møller Arkitekter

While rehabilitation has ostensibly been the goal of many prison systems for centuries, nowadays, it is generally acknowledged that rehabilitation is unlikely when prisons ‘grind’ their inmates, that prisons ought to be more humane to encourage rehabilitation. That is the principle behind the Halden Prison in Norway, designed by Erik Møller Arkitekter. This approach to humane prison design is supported by Norway’s crime statistics, where only 20% of released prisoners are arrested for re-offending, compared to 43% in the US.

Though the issue is complex, this suggests that (rather than the ’s code of ethics), the problem might lie in the US prison system, which is neither open to this progressive form of incarceration nor prison design. Can architects make a difference when it comes to prison design? Let us know in the comments below.

Cite: Stott, Rory. "The Architecture of Incarceration: Can Design Affect the Prison System?" 26 Jul 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 May 2015. <>
  • Thomas Geeslin

    to change society for the better through architecture and industrial design

  • David Hau

    Of course architects can play a role!

  • rburger

    I wonder how many of the inmates grew up in poorly designed housing projects.

    Lower income groups in the US, who statistically have higher crime rates, have never really had well designed built environments. As architects it would be more prudent to think about how low income housing design can be improved so that kids don’t grow up into criminals in the first place.

    As for whether architects will realistically affect any societal change, i would say don’t hold your breath. The profession has always been servants of the affluent. And they generally prefer to ignore these issues.

  • theLEGOjosh

    In reply to rburger; I dont think that the parallels of bad housing and crime can be drawn at all. I wonder if in fact the parallels are drawn between poverty and crime, and bad housing in poor areas is a merely a side note of that. however i do believe that architecture plays a major role in the life quality of its inhabitants. I believe that if you want to stop kids turning into criminals then a society is better to put money into creating hope, inspiration in a life beyond crime, not pouring money into an architectural show.

  • Ben

    Social scientists agree that crime rate reduction begins inside the home. The fundamental question being, what is supporting your anti social behavior. When fathers are more involved in a youth’s life, the risk of delinquent behavior is greatly reduced. Also, when social/community capital increases antisocial behavior is most likely to decrease. This isn’t a silver bullet but it is a start. That being said, I argue that architecture plays a role in helping increase social and community capital. Architecture isn’t the source of the capital but it can support capital potential. The cultures in Norway and in the USA are different. What may work over there doesn’t neccesarily mean it will work in the USA. However, their prison layouts are supporting the cultural system of rehabilitation. Therefore, evidence of architecture supporting social capital exists. But what design would be most effective in the states that supports our cultural system of rehabilitation and social capital? Or does that need to change as well?