American Institute of Architects, San Francisco Chapter

AIASF Board Supports Ending Design of Execution Chambers and Solitary Confinement

Posted on March 1, 2013

Following an emotional and intense discussion at the Jan. 25 retreat, the AIASF chapter board of directors voted to endorse a petition from Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) urging the AIA National board to amend the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to ban the design of execution chambers and solitary confinement. The proposal strengthens existing Ethics Code language calling for support of human rights by identifying the relevant United Nations standards and stating that AIA members should not be involved with designing buildings intended to house specific activities that violate human rights. Other recent ethics code amendments have added similar public-interest provisions such as responsibilities to the environment, encouragement of pro bono work, and full pay for architectural interns.

If adopted by the AIA National Board, the amendment would apply to execution chambers and to “supermax” prisons, which are large buildings intended for prolonged solitary confinement. Raphael Sperry, AIA, president of ADPSR, presented the case for the ethics amendment, noting that newly evolving international and domestic human rights standards are strongly opposed to capital punishment and solitary confinement over fifteen days. He noted that solitary confinement causes intense suffering through the withdrawal of the minimal level of social interaction necessary to sustain mental health. The fact that supermax prisons are specifically designed to exclude all spaces for any group socialization -- quite the opposite of most other building types -- was taken as a powerful indictment of their purpose and of the involvement of design professionals in their realization, especially as many individuals are held in supermax prisons for years or even decades. Board members also took note that similar ethical codes among doctors, psychologists, and other medical professionals prohibit their participation in capital punishment or torture. The observation that doctors’ refusal to certify lethal injections as not “cruel and unusual” caused significant delays in the process of carrying out executions in California convinced many board members that professional associations can and should play an important independent role in maintaining the ethical standards of civil society.

The discussion took board members into unfamiliar and sometimes personal territory in considering the relationship between being an architect, a citizen, and a leader of AIASF. “This is about who we are, and where our moral compass points,” said Board president John Kouletsis, AIA. “Not that individuals who disagree have no moral compass, but as a profession what do we stand for?”

Board members considered issues such as whether the amendment would result in even worse design for already problematic spaces types, and whether using the ethics code to prohibit a certain set of buildings would eventually lead to larger bans on more buildings. Some board members familiar with victims of crime noted that even though those inside of prison have caused extreme harm their treatment should not fall outside the bounds of decency. Ultimately, board members felt that the gravity of the human rights problems with the death penalty and solitary confinement as a form of torture were unique and rose to a high enough level of concern to deserve special attention. The vote included some abstentions but no opposition.

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