Punishment by Design: The Power of Architecture Over the Human Mind

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Photograph and direction by Mike Koozmin. Design by Audrey Fukuman.


Billy Sell was not, by any means, a sympathetic character. He'd earned a double life sentence for attempted first-degree murder. He'd been deemed too dangerous to interact with other inmates and had been confined in what's called a "security housing unit," or SHU, when he was found dead. After conducting an autopsy, the Kings County coroner's office ruled that 32-year-old Sell had hanged himself. But activists insist that Sell died of starvation, that he had joined 32,000 other prisoners to protest the harsh conditions in California's four security housing units, including the one in California State Prison, Corcoran, where he sat awaiting trial for murdering a cell mate. As his pale, brooding face graced newspaper broadsides, Sell became an unsettling specter in a large and acrimonious debate.

At that point, the Pelican Bay hunger strike had just entered its third week; it's now into its seventh. Most of the original strikers have given up, but a few hold-outs remain. They've maintained a set of demands that range from the concrete (provide nutritious food, allow prisoners to make phone calls), to the abstract ("ensure that prisoners have regular, meaningful contact," says one bullet point on a Prisoner Hunger Strike page).

One of the pods in Pelican Bay's security housing unit.
One of the pods in Pelican Bay's security housing unit.
Architect Raphael Sperry is urging colleagues to stop designing solitary housing units.
Architect Raphael Sperry is urging colleagues to stop designing solitary housing units.

The list of demands varies, but there's a common thread: Isolation is a form of excessively cruel punishment, strikers argue, not because it involves any kind of physical abuse or deprivation; rather, it's an ineffable form of torture, the kind that accrues gradually, over long periods of time. Psychologists who study its effects say that sitting alone for prolonged periods can lead to insomnia, memory loss, and hallucinations.

Former prisoners who've tried to re-acclimate to the real world say they're often paralyzed by flashbacks. Steven Czifra, who spent nearly half his life in solitary confinement, says he now gets panic attacks when faced with big crowds or large rooms. Ex-prisoner Danny Murillo felt a swell of anxiety when visiting his father in the hospital because the long, white hallways reminded him of security housing.

The term "solitary confinement" is itself so incendiary that officials in the Department of Corrections won't even use it. "We don't define our units as 'solitary confinement,'" says Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary for the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation. "We say 'security housing unit.'" The security housing unit is designed to isolate gang members and inmates deemed too violent to mix with everyone else, she says. Inmates are sent there based on their behavior in prison, and not the crimes they've committed outside.

But research suggests that security housing units produce harmful effects, which are often so potent that psychologists coined a new term to describe them: "security housing unit syndrome." Former Harvard Medical School faculty member Stuart Grassian began using the term after evaluating 200 prisoners in various state and federal penitentiaries, and concluding that the ones locked in solitary exhibited "acute mental illness." In some cases, they suffered pre-existing illnesses that were amplified after periods of prolonged isolation; in others, he says, they'd previously been healthy. The "toxicity of solitary confinement" is strong enough to induce psychosis in normal humans, he concludes in an article for the Washington University Journal of Law & Policy.

The toxicity to which Grassian refers derives from the space itself — from the fact that it has no windows, and affords little to no contact with other living things. His Oakland-based colleague, Terry Kupers — who teaches at the Wright Institute in Berkeley — says there's a consensus that solitary confinement harms mentally ill inmates, and that evidence suggests the environment at the Pelican Bay SHU impairs relatively stable inmates, as well.

"At Pelican Bay State Prison, where the current hunger strike originated, there are no windows in the cells and the only place prisoners can look out from their cells through small pinholes in their metal doors is a blank wall across the walkway," Kupers writes in an e-mail. "So almost total alienation from natural light and nature, and total isolation from other humans are built into the architectural design."

The usual players show up in the current discourse about solitary confinement: prisoners, activists, psychologists, politicians, and representatives of the prison industry. But into the mix we now see the architect's role being re-considered. If the design of a space causes harm, then the architect's responsibility includes not just functional or aesthetic considerations, but ethical ones as well. It's one thing to design a living space that is merely boring, quite another to design a living space that causes psychological damage. An architect's position in the prison-industrial complex becomes more like the engineer who designs the guidance system for missiles. The difference being that an architect inflicts design on the people within a space — even if those people aren't consciously aware of what's happening.

Berkeley architect Raphael Sperry has tried to hammer that point home for almost a year. A bespectacled 39-year-old with the fashion sense of an urban planner — red-framed glasses, button-down shirts, tousled hair — he's helped design libraries, schools, a museum, a few courthouses, some public spaces, and Terminal 2 at the San Francisco International Airport. He's a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, and president of an organization called Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, whose goal is to turn the industry into a political bloc.

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14 comments
Fedupwithfedarale
Fedupwithfedarale

Below is another example of the radical republican right allying itself with professional criminals ike the ones who run the prisons, especially white republican criminals. One hopes that they themselves won't end up in prison and have to face needlessly cruel and pointless torture at the hands of psychopaths with a badge. I don't think anyone is saying that people should not do time for crime committed, that's not the point. Cruel and Unusual punishment is not something we as a society condone. (I thought that was bipartisan, maybe the tea party is the torture party now, who knew? ) We have had to make a lot of rules for prisoners because the administration of the Prisons and the Guards cannot be trusted to treat the Prisoners humanely. Working in a prison must be a tough job, but that's no excuse to engage in torture just because you can. I abhor the moral superiorism of the Republican Tea Party who want to punish everyone and kill anyone who doesn't fit in. Republicans are constantly affirming the the always know what's best even if it's wrong and that nothing should ever be changed or fixed because new ideas are painful.

Fedupwithfedarale
Fedupwithfedarale

Below is another example of the radical republican right allying itself with professional criminals ike the ones who run the prisons, especially white republican criminals. One hopes that they themselves won't end up in prison and have to face needlessly cruel and pointless torture at the hands of psychopaths with a badge. I don't think anyone is saying that people should not do time for crime committed, that's not the point. Cruel and Unusual punishment is not something we as a society condone. (I thought that was bipartisan, maybe the tea party is the torture party now, who knew? ) We have had to make a lot of rules for prisoners because the administration of the Prisons and the Guards cannot be trusted to treat the Prisoners humanely. Working in a prison must be a tough job, but that's no excuse to engage in torture just because you can. I abhor the moral superiorism of the Republican Tea Party who want to punish everyone and kill anyone who doesn't fit in. Republicans are constantly affirming the the always know what's best even if it's wrong and that nothing should ever be changed or fixed because new ideas are painful.

Federale
Federale topcommenter

Another example of the radical left allying itself with professional criminals, especially criminals of color.  One hopes that the next person one of these killers murders is Rafael Sperry or one of the Hollywood morons who support these vicious criminals, rather than another inmate, guard, or another innocent.  Leftists are constantly looking for causes that make them appear to be more moral than the rest of the population.  It is a religious like devotion to moral superiorism, lording it over the rest of the world as if they were some sort of elite.  In the end, like riding a bicycle in congested San Francisco, it will only lead to their deaths at the hands of homicidal criminals who need to be executed or locked away in small cells.

gannieca
gannieca

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has no intention of releasing state prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, despite a federal court order requiring the state to reduce its prison population by the end of the year, sources told HuffPost.

Instead, Brown and legislative leaders are discussing a proposal to create an unconventional partnership between the state's powerful prison guard union and the nation's largest private prison corporation -- an alliance that may permanently expand California's prison system while curbing nascent efforts to reduce the state's mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders.

Under the plan, one of several the governor has proposed in conversations with legislative leaders in recent weeks, the for-profit prison giant Corrections Corporation of America would lease one or more of its prisons to the state, which would in turn use California prison guards and other public employees to staff the company’s facilities.


gannieca
gannieca

Today I called the CA State Senators on the "Senate Public Safety Committee" 5 are Democrats and 2 are Republicans. Chair Sen. Hancock staff person said they have talked to both sides.

 The rest of the Senator's staff person either had no comment or no position. I asked even after 45 days you have no comment on force feeding or hunger strike.. nada. I live in MN but from CA. Sad that these Democrats aren't sticking up for humane and human rights. 

All seemed to want to just leave it up to the CDCR and just believe the CDCR. and one staff even said they are all gang members. Why vote Democrat if they can't stand up for Human rights? 

Mary Marsh Matthews
Mary Marsh Matthews

"Security housing units" rather than solitary confinement: another hypocritical euphemism. It is abuse by any name. "A rose by any other name . . ."

Kathy Canada
Kathy Canada

How did things get so totally messed up?

塞繆塞繆
塞繆塞繆

They should NEVER get any type of treatment! My sister was killed by 4 fuckin thugs! who gives a fuck what kind of treatment they get in prison! They all should get DEATH!! Plain and simple!!! My sister beg for her life! Now I don't have her around!

mtwzzyzx
mtwzzyzx

@Mary Marsh Matthews So then, what to do with those who are deemed too dangerous to be with others (for reasonable fear they might kill another inmate or a guard)?  Do you feel their right to not be alone outweighs others right to live?  Solutions matter, complaints are mindless noise.

mtwzzyzx
mtwzzyzx

@塞繆塞繆 They don't care about your sister, they care about 'the oppressed', like prisoners.  First world problems...

 
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