Why the AIA Finally Decided to Alter Its Code of Ethics on Prison Design
Earlier this month, the American Institute of Architects approved new rules to the organization’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct prohibiting members from “knowingly designing spaces intended for execution and torture, including indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners.” The announcement was the culmination of almost a decade of intense lobbying by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility and its president, Raphael Sperry. Following the announcement, I reached out to Sperry, a Bay Area architect at Arup, for his reactions to the announcement.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
RS: Raphael Sperry
It’s been a long, eight-year battle. The first and obvious question might be: What took the AIA so long to see the light?
I think it took such a long time because AIA was scared of it. When you looked at the reasons they gave over the years for not doing it—too complicated, potential antitrust concerns, and what have you—you could tell they were looking for excuses. They were afraid this would appear political or partisan, although of course human rights are not a partisan issue, unless you have a party that believes that people outside their party shouldn’t be treated as equals or aren’t fully human. Their fear kept them from engaging with the substance of the issues—racial justice, mass incarceration, human rights—until this year. When people learn about everything wrong with execution and solitary confinement they can change their opinions, and AIA was avoiding that. Up until 2020, AIA’s national leadership deferred to the members who designed prisons, who were quite opposed and weren’t learning; they thought it would cost them work. AIA did not go to other groups within the organization who might have spoken up for a stronger ethics code, they just went looking for objections, so it was never a process set up to succeed.
Eight years ago, the idea of refusing to build jails was seen as a quixotic demand, a bit now like the demand by students for college to divest from fossil fuels. What changed— organizationally, politically, culturally—for this to happen?
Many other commentators have summed up how the injustice suffered by communities of color—and especially the Black community—boiled over this summer and led to powerful demands for change. We had Covid, the economic crisis caused by Covid, Trump, and unabated police violence, all at the same time. In 2020, for a change, a majority of white people saw themselves as allied with Black people against racism rather than as threatened with the loss of white privilege. Of course, organizers and advocates had been laying the groundwork, developing the analysis of mass incarceration and structural racism for years. Then the mass demonstrations raised awareness to the point where it finally became mainstream. I was thinking back to the movements after Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida in 2012 and Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson in 2014. In 2020 we saw the same situation all over again, and perhaps we realized that something needed to change because whatever was supposed to have changed after 2012 and 2014 had not changed.
Explain to me in detail exactly what the AIA degree says, in practical terms.
AIA now says that members can’t design execution chambers or spaces for prolonged solitary confinement. This is a rule in the Code of Ethics, which means AIA can enforce it. If you violate a rule, you can get a letter of censure (embarrassing!) or even get thrown out of the organization. That doesn’t mean you lose your architecture license—that comes from a state licensing board, which is separate from AIA—but membership is valuable. It helps with marketing, recruitment, training, continuing education, and networking, not to mention the pride and satisfaction many members have in the organization. Because projects with execution chambers and solitary confinement are relatively rare, I don’t think people will want to sacrifice all the benefits of AIA membership to pursue the occasional project.
Beyond the individual impact, AIA has now joined the group of professional associations that officially refuse execution and torture within the U.S. In lawsuits aiming to stop solitary confinement as “cruel and unusual” under the Eighth Amendment, advocates have to show that there is an “evolving standard of decency” that now considers solitary unacceptable. I can’t think of a better example of a clear change than what AIA has just done, and I hope this will get some attention in courtrooms around the country. Practical implications for the death penalty are a little harder to foresee, but a few years back pharmacists’ professional associations joined the AMA and nurses and others in refusing to participate in executions. Now architects are one more respected profession with that position. At some point, the demonstration of solidarity in opposition to the death penalty will carry the day.
This is an important first step in a larger movement toward social justice. What are next steps, for both the movement and for your organization?
There are a lot of ways this could continue to develop. If you focus on these specific human rights measures, AIA is part of the international UIA federation; UIA could adopt this into their model ethics code, which would be wonderful. Many countries still haven’t fully implemented the international human rights agenda and architects could be leaders on this around the world. But I think that there is a lot more to do nationally. During our advocacy for this step, ADPSR consistently told AIA this was just a first step towards racial justice. Design As Protest and AIA New York have both called for an end to designing jails, prisons, police stations, and even courts until we transform criminal justice in this country—not just ending execution chambers and solitary confinement. And I agree: ADPSR called for a prison design boycott and development of alternatives to incarceration in 2003. It’s so great to see powerful new advocates expanding on that message and making it much stronger. Smithgroup publicly said they won’t do jails or prisons, so this is also no longer the quixotic position it might have once appeared to be.
Mass incarceration itself is not the problem. It is a symptom of larger systemic issues. What is the role of architects and designers in addressing these larger issues?
I’m also a board member of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, which is the first design, development, and planning firm dedicated to transforming the criminal justice system and ending mass incarceration. DJDS shows a big part of the way forward to address systemic racism. When I have spoken on this topic, people (especially architects) would always ask, “If we don’t design prisons, what should we design?” And while I’m critical of architects for thinking the solution always has to be a building, in DJDS we have a powerful answer for how buildings can be the next step. We need to design alternatives to every element of the criminal justice system, and spaces to house those programs: street outreach instead of policing; restorative justice and mediation spaces instead of courts; mental health and substance abuse treatment centers instead of jails; reentry housing instead of prisons. The more of these we build and learn from, the more effective they will become. This is a long-term change, it’s not something that can happen in a year or two.
Beyond the criminal justice system (or criminal injustice system, as many advocates appropriately call it), structural racism has many dimensions. Architects and planners were central to building the segregated neighborhoods that define American cities—we must figure out how to design consciously integrated communities. Just as importantly, we have historically made our firms, our schools, and our profession bastions of white male privilege. We have to remake these into vehicles of inclusion, equity, and diversity.
What other groups did you align with to make this happen?
ADPSR found a tremendous amount of support in our years of advocacy on this issue. We worked with many excellent human rights organizations including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the National Religious Coalition on Torture. We even had help from an intellectual property law firm that did a memo pro bono refuting AIA’s argument that this would be an antitrust violation. Some AIA chapters helped advocate for this including San Francisco, Portland, and Boston.
The most important alignment in this work is with formerly incarcerated people and their advocates. I learned early on that a privileged white professional can’t speak for people in prison; to be an ally and advance our shared and equal human rights, our organizing and advocacy strategies have to embody equality and a shared position. When ADPSR spoke with the AIA National Ethics Council last year, we were honored to be joined by Saleem Holbrook, a survivor of years of solitary confinement in Pennsylvania state prisons. His testimony was uniquely powerful. In the same vein, ADPSR has consistently learned from the group Critical Resistance, one of the first national prison abolition organizations, and All of Us or None, which is led by formerly incarcerated people.
The AIA had been pretty dug in for a number of years. When did you realize that they were open to this?
When the demonstrations began after George Floyd’s death, we reached out to AIA to suggest that our petition was a real way to respond to the demands for change. We also reached out to Michael Kimmelman at the New York Times, who had written about the petition before, and he wrote an amazing column reminding AIA that in making a statement opposing “systemic racial injustice” they ought to pick up ADPSR’s proposal to ban execution chambers and solitary confinement. Of course, AIA had ignored him before, too.
This summer the times had changed, and AIA’s leadership had also changed (they have a new president every year). Back in June I got a call from Jane Frederick, this year’s AIA president, who told me, “I think we can get it right this time.” She didn’t want me to convince her of ADPSR’s point of view, she wanted to understand the issues so she could move things rapidly through her board of directors before her year was over. So she certainly deserves credit for making this happen. As it turned out, a few more key people had to be persuaded along the way and we did have to convince some others of ADPSR’s point of view, but knowing that the national board wanted to see something different from the inaction of the past was a big motivator.
Any closing thoughts?
One issue that I also care a lot about is building more democratic and equitable workplaces. In particular, I am inspired by the Mondragon cooperative network in Spain, where over 80,000 people work in over 250 businesses that have a general assembly of all workers run on a one-person-one-vote model as the top level of decision-making. If we’re looking to make our profession more inclusive, equitable, and open to diversity, that’s the way to do it: it actually treats people of all ethnicities, genders, ages, equally because everyone’s vote is equal. It removes the tokenism that pretends that one Black person can speak for all Black people in a company, or that a handful of women can represent all women. When you get right down to it, it’s not inclusive, equitable or diverse for a small group of people (like firm principals or partners) to own the means of livelihood of a large group of others (employees). And what’s the point of diversifying a firm’s workforce if they then aren’t getting the opportunity to do work that’s helpful to the more diverse communities they come from?
My approach to advocacy has always been about what we can achieve within our profession and hoping that will serve as a model for others. ADPSR looked for the parts of mass incarceration that we are responsible for (prison buildings, and then the worst parts of them in particular), and focused our demands on our professional role in designing those. If every profession and occupation did that, then as a society we could be solving these really important issues. Another thing we’re directly responsible for is how we structure our firms and conditions of employment. So many architecture firms said they were going to contribute to a dramatically more inclusive, equitable, and diverse society this summer. I hope our profession will be among the first to redesign our corporate structures along a democratic model, so that as we welcome a more diverse group into our profession we’re not asking them to be part of the same old system. I hope that while we are transforming our justice system we can also transform our profession to be more systemically just as well.
Featured image via University of Michigan News.