Led by San Francisco architect Raphael Sperry, a movement has emerged among architects to boycott bids to design new jails and prisons, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday. Inspired by his arrest during anti-war protests in 2003, Sperry has joined with an organization, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, which is spearheading the Prison Design Boycott Campaign.
"Many architects, designers, and planners already refuse to do prison work as an informal policy," the group notes on its web site. "ADPSR hopes that by marshalling the collective voice of the design professionals who feel this way, we can raise awareness of the problems with the prison system. We also hope that other design professionals who don't yet know about prisons will learn about the issue and take our pledge."
"Prisons are so often associated with their buildings, so I thought this would be a way for architects to connect the issue with their work, with something they could do about it," said Sperry, who has been giving presentations to his colleagues where he cites all-too-familiar statistics about nonviolent offenders and racial disparities in sentencing.
The campaign is just getting underway and currently only 274 architects have signed the pledge to avoid prison jobs. But it is already creating a stir in the architectural community and has aroused the concern of the American Institute of Architects, the country's leading professional organization for home- and building-designers. The Institute's committee on justice building design is crafting a statement opposing the boycott. "To refuse to design and build new correctional facilities to replace outmoded, inhumane, inefficient, costly-to-operate existing facilities," reads a draft of the statement, "is to force those confined to endure their sentences without opportunity to benefit from them."
San Francisco architect Beverly Prior, who sits on the committee acknowledged Sperry's goals, but rejected his proposal. "What they're trying to do is change the conversation," said Prior, who has designed jails. "I haven't had the same sort of moral issues. For me, personally, it's about making a facility better for the people inside." Instead of trying to set social policy, "architects should concentrate on designing better prisons," she said.
Other local architects are similarly less than enthused. "I'm a bit confused by the call for a boycott," said Glenn Friedman, an architect with Taylor Engineering in Alameda. "Are we supposed to turn our backs when there's a call to design new prisons?"
The campaign's answer is yes: "As architects, we are responsible for one of the most expensive parts of the prison system, the construction of new prison buildings," said the organization. "Almost all of us would rather be using our professional skills to design positive social institutions such as universities or playgrounds, but these institutions lack funding because of spending on prisons. If we would rather design schools and community centers, we must stop building prisons."