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

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

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 AIA'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. 

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Cite: Rory Stott. "The Architecture of Incarceration: Can Design Affect the Prison System?" 26 Jul 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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