You don't have to be a fan of HBO's gritty drama Oz to know that the prison system is broken. More than 2 million people are behind bars, a disproportionate number of them people of color. States, struggling to keep pace with overstuffed jails, say they simply can't afford the revenue-draining system anymore. Even the Supreme Court has chimed in, rejecting mandatory sentences and granting relief to judges weary of dooming offenders to an eternity in the slammer.
As the country's prison population swells, both jails and many average Americans are being pushed to their limits. Prisoner-rights activism has spread beyond radical lefties to include even conservative Republicans, as a broad consensus forms around the need to reform the system. Now, of course, the question is how to go about it.
The answer, according to a group of building professionals -- Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) -- is to stop building prisons altogether. Adhering to a kind of Hippocratic oath to promote public health not harm, the group launched a prison-building and -design boycott last September. As ADPSR president Raphael Sperry told Designer/Builder (Nov./Dec. 2004), architects 'are a crucial piece of the whole expansion . . . so we have more power in this position than we might have thought.'
That's a radical break from the traditional role architects and designers have played in prison reform. They're usually the ones who gladly weave the mores of the day into brick-and-mortar structures -- solitary, penitence-inspiring cells for penitentiaries, wide-open spaces for the 'big houses,' communal areas for correctional facilities.
But, says ADPSR, building re-design simply won't work anymore. The system's too far gone. Inmate abuse -- by both other inmates and guards -- is well documented. Prisons have become incubators for diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. And new super-maximum-security prisons rely on extended solitary confinement to control prisoners.
'What I'd like to see is alternative approaches to justice that are based in community and fully respect each individual's human rights,' Sperry told Utne.
That may sound like a liberal pipe dream, but consider the idea of building homes instead of prisons. Higher investment in home mortgages is directly linked to lower crime rates, according to a pair of sociology professors at George Washington University who wrote about their research in Dollars & Sense (Sept./Oct. 2004). Forget a neighborhood's racial makeup, they say, or how much money people make -- when banks invest in people's homes, people invest in their neighborhoods. Schools are stronger, public services better, streets safer.
Lower crime rates mean fewer people in jail, and for cash-strapped states that's a big draw. A handful of states have changed parole and sentencing policies for nonviolent offenders and invested in recidivism-reduction programs like job training and drug treatment. And keeping ex-cons out of prison has even become a pet project of the 'compassionate conservatives.' When Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, quizzed Alberto Gonzales during the attorney general's confirmation hearing about his plans to keep former jailbirds crime-free, Gonzales responded that recidivism was an issue close to President George W. Bush's heart.
Under Bush, however, several federal financial agencies have enacted or proposed changes to roll back regulations in the Community Reinvestment Act, the federal law that forces banks to offer fair loans to low- and moderate-income borrowers -- the program that drives the mortgage lending that has kept people out of prison.
What's more, a recent online article from ZNet (Feb. 2005) reports that buried in the massive Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act passed last December is a two-paragraph provision calling for at least 40,000 new immigrant detention beds by 2010. Resistance to imprisoning hordes of Americans may be on the rise, but, as writer Bob Libal suggests, in a post-9/11 world the ever-profitable prison industry may have found a new avenue for growth.
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Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility
To learn more about this organization, or to sign its boycott pledge (all are welcome), visit www.adpsr.org/prisons
At www.360degrees.org you can click on 'Dialogue' and join online forums on different facets of the U.S. criminal justice system. Learn more about the history of prisons under 'Timeline.'