Atlantic Cities

Architects Are Part of the Prison Industrial Complex, Too

Architects Are Part of the Prison Industrial Complex, Too

When it comes to criticism of the prison industrial complex, most of the attention goes to a handful of actors: Prison guard unions, private prison companies, and the legislators who determine which group gets to run which prisons. But before a prison can be run, it has to be built; and before it can be built, it has to be designed. That's where architects come in. 

Architects are the invisible actors in America's carceral play. They design not just how prisons look, but how they work and how the people confined inside them live. Prison design, reports San Francisco Weekly's Rachel Swan, is a "booming field in architecture right now":

"booming" meaning construction revenues will jump to $2.4 billion over the next five years, according to a January report by the market research firm IBISWorld — and as a result, many of the firms that design our office towers or luxury apartment buildings are also conceiving the spaces in which we hide our criminals. Some, like Arizona's Arrington Watkins or theSpokane-based firm Integrus Architecture, consider the "justice" market a significant portion of their business.

Bigger fish like CGL Companies have figured out how to vertically dominate the market: The company often approaches county governments with its own architects, contractors, and financial backers all in one package. It's a way to privatize the system so that the cash-strapped county can lease its jails from a private company, says CGL's chief business development officer, Eli Gage. (The rising popularity of private prisons, coupled with a projected 0.5 percent annual increase in national incarceration rates, will boost the industry overall, according to IBISWorld.)

Last year, CGL was acquired by Hunt Companies Inc., a corporation that specializes in big real estate projects such as military bases and shopping malls.

The focus of Swan's piece isn't actually the business of prison architecture, but the morals of it, and Berkeley architect Raphael Sperry's crusade to get The American Institute of Architects "to condemn security housing units and execution chambers in its code of ethics." The entire piece is well worth a read. 

Top image: A solitary confinement cell at U.S. Bagram Air Base. REUTERS/Jonathon Burch

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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