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June 20 2015 / 865 Saint Marks Ave


Before colonialism imprisonment was not one of the options. Holding cells kept people detained until receiving their judgement – lashes, executions exiles, but not incarceration. With some variety, people mostly paid for their own imprisonment. Colonization eventually enabled not only exiling out of town but to a different (new) world.

In the 18th Century John Howard was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, England, a position he used to improve the prison system, which he saw as corrupt, and often targeting innocent people. After traveling through the UK and continental Europe he wrote a prison reform manifesto.

Until 1776 nobody much cared about Howard’s writings. But when the UK’s largest prison closed its gates, UK officials started researching reform of their own exploding prisons. Luckily for them, though, they soon “found” Australia and did not have to bother with reform.

Nonetheless American puritans in the colonies took notice of Howard’s ideas and even implemented some, hoping prisoners could be reformed through their jail time. They secluded prisoners with bibles (precursors to solitary confinement), away from negative influences, given a chance to find faith and become god-abiding.

As an aside, the idea of imprisonment as reform also took hold (dissociated from John Howard) in some Dutch prisons. There, prisoners used water pumps to fend for their lives in flooding cells as a form of re-education of what it means to be hard-working Dutchmen.

Since the puritans, the idea of imprisonment as reform became dominant in the US (and other countries) up to the 1970’s. Then, there were various critiques both from right and left. Parole boards had all the power to decide when a prisoner was sufficiently reformed. Liberals pointed to skewed reform timelines based on race and class. Conservatives were generally unsatisfied that people were released with seemingly little reason and thought they should be there longer.

In the 1970’s parole boards lost their power and imprisonment transitioned to a paradigm of eye for an eye. Sentences, rather than focusing on reform, merely correlated with the harshness of the crime. Robbed a store? Get 3 years. Killed 2 people? Get 15. Over time, this system also came under fire. Liberals argued that conservatives kept increasing punishment for disparate crimes, but because they were all correlated, all sentences become longer. As a consequence we got the prisoner population dimensions we still have today.

Lately, though, the high cost of imprisonment and inklings of a return to imprisonment as reform – this time evidence based – is reducing the number of prisoners slightly. We may be on our way down from the all-time peak of imprisonment of the US population.




In February 2015 the Architecture Review wrote a brief article about how the Architects Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility had petitioned the AIA to amend their Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct in order to directly address architecture’s relationship to torture. The proposed rule suggested,  “Members shall not design spaces intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.” In response, the AIA posited that the Code of Ethics is, “more about desirable practices and attitudes than condemnation.” And that, “the AIA Code of Ethics should not exist to create limitations on the practice by AIA members of specific building types” referring to the anti-trust challenges that would potentially limit the competitiveness of other AIA members if architects were to take a design-equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath.


Taking the AIA’s cowardly, yet complicated response as a starting point for discussion, this talk traced the typological development of the Supermax prison in the United States. Particular attention was paid to the design and misuse of segregated housing units, which refer to the whole spectrum of solitary confinement experiences ranging from discrete cells to whole isolations wings within Supermax compounds. By contrast, alternative approaches to incarceration and confinement found in international prisons were also outlined. The presentation of this material underscored the tension between two facts: our population is in dire need of better architecture for incarcerated persons and that architecture is necessarily an accomplice in a much larger injustice to humanity.

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