California inmate hunger strike

California inmate hunger strike

California, United States

July 8, 2013

Kolby Forbes and Jahaan Scipio

<iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”//” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

A look at the life of a man held in solitary confinement. Created by Jahaan Scipio and Kolby Forbes

The Architecture of Incarceration

California inmates led a two month hunger strike, resulting in the state’s largest prison protest, to dispute the use of solitary confinement and other practices in the prison system that can be viewed as torture due to serious mental and physical harm.  Beginning with 30,000 participants declining meals in two thirds of the state’s thirty three different prisons, the strike ended with around 100 inmates.  Prison officials refused to have negotiations with the protesters for weeks, and insisted that the policies regarding solitary confinement were revised following a series of smaller scale hunger strikes taking place in 2011 and were therefore non-negotiable. But after speaking with strike leaders in a conference call, the officials promised to meet and discuss the demands of the inmates within September. These concerns about human rights have been derived from the environment that subdues these prisoners. The role of architecture becomes especially significant in this controversy as it begins to put into question the commitment of the profession to the public, those who are both incarcerated and free. Architecture in regard to incarceration is undoubtedly submissive to American policy on imprisonment and punishment; recent events have demonstrated a necessity for transition towards a more rehabilitative nature of confinement.

In response to the demonstrations in the California prison system, the role of the architect in designing these areas of detainment has been put into question.  It is the opinion of some that architects should simply distance themselves from the practice of prison design.  Architects are unable to foresee the effects of their designs that have been heavily influenced by policy and legislation that has been set forth by the American justice system.  This occurrence is exemplified in the design of the Pelican Bay State prison by KMD Architects.  Pelican Bay is plagued with extreme living conditions that are characterized by either debilitating overcrowding or the psychologically taxing practice of solitary confinement.  It was impossible for the architectural firm to anticipate the creation of an environment violating so many basic human rights, but ultimately KMD Architects are complicit in the result.  It is for this reason that it is believed that architects should all but separate themselves from design practices that can lead to the degradation of mankind.

The fault in the design of these super maximum prisons lies with the purposes behind which they were commissioned.  The prisons were ultimately designed to hold the most dangerous and violent offenders, resulting in design practices that supported enduring solitary confinement.  It is suggested that these types of prisons should be considered anti-architecture.  As it is one of the only building archetypes that does not account space for group activities and human interaction, while in any other design project architectural firms strive to do just the opposite.  In this way, the design of prisons cannot even be referred to as architecture, but instead a perversion of the role and responsibility architects have to society.

The capacity of architecture in society and the duty of the architect are those of ill-defined parameters. The obscurity of these parameters has begotten many theories on an architect’s true responsibility. As an indefinite fiduciary, the architect holds a profession expected to maintain appropriate moral conduct. The divergence in theories surfaces when the extent of their moral responsibility is questioned. Some argue that the responsibility of the architect is to respect the trust and desires of the client, while others argue that the architects loyalty to society as whole is of far greater importance. But how does this manifest with regard to incarceration? If an architect is commissioned with creating a prison facility, the question then becomes; is it the architects duty to solely respect the wishes of those commissioning such project, or to also take what kind of environment they are creating for future inmates into serious consideration?

Some find the involvement of architects in perpetuating such an environment to be highly immoral and would advocate the ostracization of prisons from the architecture realm. However, the ramifications of this decision are not a prison free society and a ‘happily ever after’. Logical advocates realize that an architect’s righteous decision to abstain from designing places for solitary confinement and execution will simply result in their design at the hands less experienced individuals who feel no moral binding to society and/or the incarcerated. Subsequently their efforts to prevent inhumanities will have only brought upon more inhumane treatment due to the simple truth that ‘If you don’t do it, someone else will’. The resulting course of action for those who sincerely believe in the architects moral binding to society is this: involve yourself for the sake of the incarcerated. This sentiment is shared by coalition of architects who never cared to neglect prison architecture, but instead to enhance it. Those behind this movement have developed a rather optimistic theory about architecture and its power to improve society. They believe that the architecture of incarceration and imprisonment policy has to conserve the rehabilitative aspect of confinement to ensure the protection of human rights and maintain a civil society inside and out of the judicial system.

While our argument supports emphasizing the rehabilitative nature of confinement, the heart of the debate on prison architecture revolves around the role and degree of punishment in the prison system. It seems people’s highest concern is not the sustainment of humane conditions for prison inmates, but the enforcement of an appropriate punishment for crimes committed. While it is not our intention to encourage exoneration of prison inmates for crimes committed to any degree, it is both logical and moral to invest in a more efficient rendition of incarceration. One that reduces recidivism and does not impede upon human rights. Architecture can begin to reform the punishment policies simply by building better environments. That is the power of architecture; to define environment. If the judicial system has concluded that the seizure of one’s freedom is not an adequate punishment that is tolerable, then seizing one’s human rights is not.



Pelican Bay prison

“CALIFORNIA SUPERMAX PAGE.” Supermaxed – about Supermax and Maximum Security Prisons . (accessed September 16, 2013).


Manifestation of the panopticon ideals

“Panopticon – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (accessed September 16, 2013).


Solitary Housing Units

“Too much solitary confinement in U.S. prisons | Star Tribune.” News, weather, sports from Minneapolis, St. Paul and Minnesota. (accessed September 16, 2013).


Protesters for the hunger strike

youth, taking The Pledge we not only articulate our concern about black. “Prisoners Near Death As 1,700 California Inmates Continue Hunger Strike To Protest Appalling Conditions.” Black Youth Project | Knowledge. Voice. Action.. (accessed September 16, 2013).





ArchDaily. “Should Architects Design Prisons?” Last modified August 6, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2013.

This article emphasizes the need for architect’s involvement in prison design. It argues that prisons have become increasingly impudent upon human rights, and quotes strongly opinionated architect and activist Raphael Sperry that we need to stop building correctional facilities that prisoners would “rather die than go on living in”. It also introduces the parallels of an architect’s responsibility to not create “death camps” to doctor’s responsibility to not partake in executions, providing interesting insight on an architect’s true duty to society.


ArchDaily. “The Architecture of Incarceration: Can Design Affect the Prison System?” Last modified July 26, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2013.

This article relates to the controversy surrounding architects involvement in prison design. It poses the question, should architects make an effort to revolutionize prison design or obtain from prison design altogether? Getting into the possible consequences of ostracizing prisons from the realm of professional architecture, this source highlights the ramifications of poor architectural design.


Encyclopedia Entries

Dictionary of Prisons and Punishment, s.v. “ARCHITECTURE,” accessed September 09, 2013,

This entry highlights the relationship of prison architecture to the principles of punishment. It provides interesting insight on the gap between the standards of human rights and the standards of security housing units. Architecture has the power to inform and affect the nature of confinement; and possibly revolutionize prison aims and results.


“Prison Architecture – The Canadian Encyclopedia.” The Canadian Encyclopedia.  accessed September 9, 2013.

This entry describes the evolution of prison architecture in conjunction with society’s changing attitudes towards crime and how criminals should be punished.  It provides insight into how societal opinion can affect the structure of design and it allows for us to track the development of penal architecture.  It is also interesting to see how prisons have changed from simply places of incarceration to settings that try to promote reform.


Scholarly Articles

Dobson, Jerome E., and Peter F. Fisher.  “The Panopticon’s Changing Geography.” Geographical Review 97 (2007): 307-323. Accessed September 9, 2013.

This article is a description of evolution of the panopticon theory and the way that surveillance technology has changed over times.  It provides insight by not limiting itself to simply building design.  The article allows us to see surveillance through many means, giving us a chance to think about the idea of being even when we are not prisoners.


Sibley, David, and Bettina van Hoven. “The Contamination of Personal Space: Boundary Construction in a Prison Environment.” Area 41 (2009): 198-206. Accessed September 9, 2013.

This article interviews inmates in dormitories in a prison in New Mexico and allows them to voice their opinions on personal space and the anxiety that accompanies living in such close proximity with other inmates.  It also focuses on how they have been able to define their own personal space without true boundaries existing.  It provides insight by allowing us to see the implications of space definement.


Orthographic Documentation

Bentham, Jeremy. “Panopticon.” Wikipedia. September 4, 2013.

This is an elevation, plan, and section of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. The design is based on the concept that allow a prison official to observe inmates without the prisoners being able to know if they are being watched or not.  It has influenced the design of modern prisons.


Voth, Don. “My Prison Designs Saga 5: Marianna, Florida.” My Life As A Saga. October 19, 2012.

This is a first floor plan of a typical prison design. It allows for understanding of the clustering of prisoners and how the design of the prison affects the wellbeing of the inmates.


Video and Audio

Mars, Rowan. “An Architect’s Code” from 99% Invisible radio show, Soundcloud audio recording, 18:11. Posted June 2013.

This radio show discusses the inhumanity being perpetuated in current prison systems. It provides insights on the concerns of human rights in the controversy on confinement and highlights the architect’s ethical responsibility with regards to human rights for prisoners.


Greene, Frank. “Prison Architects on the Modern Prison.” PBS video, 5:15. July 8, 2013.

This video examines the opinions of actual practicing prison architects and supports until movement towards a more ethical approach to the “architecture of incarceration”. It provides insight on the history and origins of supermax prisons and security housing units while emphasizing the necessity for prison design geared towards rehabilitation rather than punishment.





Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>