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Architects say building houses, not jails, is the way to cut crime

| May / June 2005

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.

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