Home Security

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

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.

Architects/Designers/Planners for Social

To learn more about this organization, or to sign its boycott
pledge (all are welcome), visit

360 Degrees
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.’

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