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


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).

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.

Sperry explains that architects have a unique stake in social issues that intersect with the built environment. Architects/Designers/Planners was an early proponent of green building, for example. Its founders also opposed nuclear war in the 1980s, arguing that it could wipe out the societies they'd constructed.

Sperry got fixated on prison issues in 2003, at a time when he was also closely following the Iraq War. “There was a real connection in my mind between the willingness of our government to use violence as an instrument of international policy, and the way that the prison system is a governmental instrument of violence,” he says. Last October he began urging the American Institute of Architects to condemn security housing units and execution chambers in its code of ethics. Since most professional architects belong to the association and try to abide by its code, an official condemnation could create a thorn in the side of the prison industry — or at least curb the design of “excessively harsh prisons.”

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That's what happened when a contingent of politically minded doctors persuaded the American Medical Association to frown upon executions, Sperry says. Since most professional doctors won't participate in a lethal injection, lest they disobey the most distinguished organization in their industry, prisons have had to hire their own doctors, he says. They've even had to stay executions while searching for a doctor who was willing to go against his or her peers.

So far, Sperry has support from the local AIA chapter in San Francisco, and he's circulating an online petition to amend the code nationally; AIA general counsel Jay Stephens says that at this point, the national organization has no position on the matter. It does, however, encourage members to uphold human rights.

To an outsider, one recommendation in an ethics code might sound like a modest proposal. Sperry isn't pushing for complete eradication of supermax prisons; he knows there's a dangerous population of prisoners who have to be dealt with. Nor is he asking any architecture firm to sacrifice substantial portions of its business, given that the architecture industry only gets one supermax project or execution chamber to bid on per year.

But for someone who is abstractly interested in protecting human rights, like Sperry, even a nominal gesture from the AIA would constitute a milestone. Sperry works within the scope of his profession, conceiving spaces and thinking about the people who inhabit them. He's less bedeviled by the salient violence of Abu Ghraib than by the “pacific” violence of California's maximum security prisons, four of which have solitary confinement units. Physical space is a profound thing, he says, and it structures our relationships in small, unseen ways. Architects build our spaces for physical reasons, but also for practical ones.

Once you start considering the unconscious effects of design, the architectural features of many institutional structures begin to offer clues about their intended purpose. Big airports, such as SFO, often require large, wide hallways that allow people to see the windows at the end, “so that they get a sense of orientation — they know where they're going, and that they're going to get there,” Sperry says. American courthouses are designed hierarchically, in that the judge is always two steps up, while the witness stand and jury boxes are one step up. “It creates this kind of power relationship where everyone looks up at the judge, because the judge is supposed to be this unquestioned authority,” Sperry says. “But I saw a picture of a court in the Netherlands, and it looked more like a conference room. There was a big table, and there were seats all around it, and one of those seats was for the judge.” He smiles conspiratorially. “I was like, 'Huh. Can you really do that?'”

Sperry says that since architects have a significant, mostly unconscious influence on our lives, they also have a certain degree of social responsibility. Prison design 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 the Spokane-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. To Sperry, that suggests prison construction is a real estate gold mine. But that's not to mention the many ancillary markets that have sprung up within the industry, such as the equipment contractors who install all those thousand-pound motorized doors, or the security electronics companies that design cameras to peer out of every corner. Even firms that treat prisons as a niche might have a principal architect dedicated to jail design, Gage says.

In other words, Sperry may have a captive audience in San Francisco, but he'll face a bulwark of opposition trying to curb the giant cash cow that is the prison design industry. The California Department of Corrections' latest project — a prison-hospital in Stockton, which opened in June — is a perfect example of the powerful economic interests behind every facility. Its planners promise a $1 billion impact on the local economy, and up to 5,500 jobs in a traditionally depressed area.

Danny Murillo grew up in Norwalk, a suburban community in southeast L.A. that resembles the sets of American Graffiti — its main drag is a checkerboard of palm trees and wide boulevards, the store awnings always awash in sunlight. Murillo's neighborhood took up about 15 streets in a working-class section of the city, where most residents had emigrated across the border from Mexico. The gang ties ran deep, he says, and the fate of young men seemed almost preordained.

“Just growing up on the block where I was, I knew five people who went to prison,” he recalls. “Like Corcoran Prison or Pelican Bay? A lot of people would say, 'Oh, my dad's up there.' It was like, normalized. Like, if you fucking get in trouble, that's where you go.”

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Murillo joined a gang in high school after his grades dropped too low to play on the baseball team. At age 17 he was convicted for armed robbery and sentenced to 15 years. He got to Wasco State Prison on his 18th birthday, then spent six years in the maximum security unit at High Desert State Prison in Susanville. Murillo was shunted to the solitary unit in Tehachapi after guards branded him a gang member, owing to paraphernalia they found in his cell (a borrowed dictionary and a calendar of prison artwork) and testimony from another inmate. From there he went to Pelican Bay and spent five years alone in the security housing unit.

There, Murillo's entire world measured just a few dozen yards from end to end, and for the most part he stayed within a 7-and-a-half-by-12-foot radius: It took about four strides to get from the door to the bunk bed and from there you could take another three steps to the right before you hit a wall. There was a desk made of two slabs of concrete that functioned better as a TV stand; most inmates set their work on the bottom bunk and rolled their blankets up to make a small stool. There was a slot in the door just big enough to slide in trays of food, and a metal toilet that served as a makeshift step machine. Murillo says he exercised by stepping from the floor to the toilet seat, usually doing five sets with 50 reps on each foot.

There was a “yard” — 13 by 26 feet of empty space, with a fenced-in roof and three cell blocks wedged around it — where he and other prisoners were allowed to go for an hour and a half each day. It's the only way to really mark seasons, he and Czifra say. During winter, rain spilled through the roof, which is half-plexiglass, half-mesh fencing. Sunlight slatted through those holes in the summer. Prisoners would go out there in their boxers and sit for long periods in a single patch of sun, not caring if it scorched them.

“They give you access to the yard once a day for an hour and a half, but you don't have to go,” Murillo says. “And it doesn't really matter. You're inside the cell by yourself, or you're outside in the yard, by yourself.”

During the day he designed chess pieces from crumpled pieces of paper. Inmates in his cell block would play together by yelling through the mesh screens on their doors, he says. Every time they moved a piece, they'd shout the name of the piece and the row and number of the square.

“So we played behind closed doors,” he says. “We could talk to each other. We just couldn't see each other.”

Whether those long, blank, lonely days amounted to torture is a point of contention, and the burden of living through them is hard to explain from the inside. Grassian argues that intense monotony, even for short periods of time, can induce a kind of “mental torpor.” Sustained over long periods, it can cause symptoms that resemble post-traumatic stress disorder. Inmates become highly sensitive to noises or small flashes of light, and even a tiny stimulant can seem “noxious.”

Murillo says he became obsessed with filling time. He would wake up at 5:30 every morning, brush his teeth, and immediately clean his cell. He cleaned his cell four or five times a day. He did his exercise routines. He conceived the idea for a chess set and set about constructing the individual pieces.

Murillo's first real SHU flashback happened when he went to visit his father in the hospital. “I walked through these hallways, and it reminded me of Pelican Bay SHU,” he says, shuddering. “Like, long freaky hallways.”

Czifra, now a student at UC Berkeley, says the after-effects of prison life come in jolts. “It's not like Count of Monte Cristo, where you're suddenly seeing daylight again,” he explains. It's more a kind of ongoing social paralysis — panic attacks whenever he walked into a classroom at Cal, blurred vision, fear of crowds. He took a job as a driver for a whitewater rafting company and didn't make a single friend in three years of working there. “I couldn't figure out how to initiate interpersonal relationships. I just felt like if I wasn't hyper-vigilant at my job, I'd lose my ability to provide for myself and wind up homeless.”

We didn't always lock up our prisoners. In ancient and medieval civilizations it was much more common — and practical — to simply execute, flog, torture, banish, ostracize, or enslave people. A convict might sit in a dungeon while he awaited his fate, but the cell itself was not considered punishment; it was a detention facility.

Incarceration as we know it today coincided with the Enlightenment period in Europe, as former University of Washington professor Norman Johnston notes in several histories he's written about prison architecture. By the early 18th century, social theorists were applying the scientific method to everything, often tempering it with new ideas about human liberty. They began entertaining the conceit that a society could discipline its criminals merely by restricting their freedom.

Post-colonial Americans set out to perfect this new form of punishment, which seemed both more humane and more rational than its antecedents. It would deter crime without costing money, and each sentence would be commensurate with the act committed. No prisoner would become a martyr, and the ones who were beyond reform would at least be sequestered.

In the 18th century, a philosopher and social theorist named Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon, a coliseum of stacked rows of one-person cells encircling a central tower. The idea was to put a watchman in the tower so he could observe the prisoners at all times. Inmates never know for sure when, or if, they were being watched, and so would always have the sense of a God-like eye upon them.

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That served as a paradigm for modern American penitentiaries, which reflected new attitudes toward crime and reformation. Americans of the 17th and 18th centuries retained their ancestors' Puritanical interest in scrubbing away sin, but they also had rational ideas about correcting people. Early attempts to emulate Bentham's model were precarious, at best — prisons quickly became overcrowded, and social engineers had to learn not to mix young delinquents with older felons. But Americans persisted, convinced these structures could ultimately meet their higher moral aims.

In the 19th century, adherents of a “Reformatory” movement developed a new prison concept based on the idea that humans are malleable and teachable. Sometimes called “industrial prisons,” these institutions allowed prisoners to reduce their own sentences by working. They also offered educational programs that served to reintroduce inmates to society. Children were separated from adults; women were isolated from men. Though poor management eventually begat squalid conditions (especially during the Depression), their “remedial” model had real staying power. Reformatories of the early 20th century also coincided with the rise of “Big House” prisons like Leavenworth, San Quentin, and Sing-Sing — all that lovely, plantation-style architecture we saw jutting out over rocky escarpments or waving fields of wheat in movies like The Shawshank Redemption.

Correctional facilities as we know them were born in the mid-20th century, when sociologists pushed for a more bureaucratic, humane model that resurrected some concepts from the old reformatories. (This was also the period when we began using “corrections” as a euphemism for imprisonment.) Modern prisons included spaces for rehabilitation and recreational activities — blueprints for the new San Mateo facility are filled with them — making prisons into a kind of parallel civilization, rather than a place to merely serve time. Meanwhile, draconian drug policies of the 1970s and '80s swelled prison populations, creating demand for more prisons to house them. And with that came a prison architecture boom.

Over the last few decades, giant warehouse-style prisons have cropped up in rural towns throughout the U.S., including 24 in California. Unlike old, traditional jails, these new facilities have a much more antiseptic vision of what it means to confine and punish. They don't have bars on the doors — mostly because inmates can reach through bars and assault someone — and their interiors are much closer, aesthetically, to hospital corridors than to old-fashioned Big Houses. From the outside, these cookie-cutter cell blocks look like Walmart stores clustered in a strip mall. They're big-box monuments of cinderblock and steel, separated by warrens of paved road, usually surrounded by vast fields of scrub brush.

As a kid, Czifra was fearless. He boosted car stereos, burglarized houses, smoked cigarettes, smoked crack, dropped out of school, ran amok in Hollywood and Echo Park. His childhood is one of the few that actually warrants the label “Dickensian” — Czifra and his brother used to stick flour and water on the fryer to make doughnuts, because their alcoholic parents didn't buy groceries — but he says it was also a fun ride for about five years. “Until I started going to jail,” he says.

By fifth grade, he was lifting Becker radios from Mercedes Benzes in the Hollywood Hills and hawking them for pocket money. He got arrested for burglary at 9 years old and went to juvenile hall at 11, after stealing his mother's VCR and selling it to a guy in his apartment building who ran a fencing operation. That was the first in a long spate of incarcerations that brought him to California Youth Authority, to Pleasant Valley State Prison, to the state penitentiary in Corcoran — “where I paced my ass off” — and finally, to Pelican Bay.

“I'm uniquely positioned to tell you that solitary confinement fucked me up,” he says. “While I was in puberty, while I was in my 20s, while I was trying to figure out about relationships. If I go into any social situation on my first day of classes at Cal, I'm experiencing physiological fight-or-flight reactions.”

Pelican Bay was built in the 1980s by a San Francisco-based firm called KMD, based on a maximum security facility in Florence, Ariz., designed by the firm Arrington Watkins, which specializes in protective infrastructure; its website portfolio features jails, prisons, 911 dispatch centers, border patrol stations, mental hospitals, evidence storage, and other highly secure warehouse facilities.

Pelican Bay is hailed as a gold standard, both for cost efficiency — KMD created it with a central power plant, waste treatment facility, and water distribution — and for innovations like the skylight shared among multiple SHUs. It also helped popularize the “indirect supervision” model, in which a guard sits in a secured control booth with direct sight lines to all six adjoined “pods,” or groups of eight cells. A distant cousin of the Panopticon model, it allows for remote, continuous surveillance, so inmates once again feel they are being watched at all times.

“There's only one window in the entire place that's facing outwards,” Czifra says. “It's probably one foot by eight inches and it's in the door where they'd do receiving and releases. They [the escorting officers] ring the bell, and a sergeant looks out like in Wizard of Oz.”

From there, he says, you enter a vast nexus of interconnected corridors. “Just imagine a couple Walmarts put together with no windows,” he says. “You walk in, there's this low ceiling, and below it is a gate. It's designed so that at no point, moving throughout this building, are you not in a cage.”

Industry experts say that configuration is purely pragmatic. It saves costs, requiring only one central control booth where traditional designs might need several. And it's safer, Thornton says, noting that isolation is the only way to separate gang members or other “security threats” from the general population. “You gotta go back and look at what was going on in the 1970s and '80s,” Thornton explains. “That was a very turbulent time — a lot of violence, a lot of staff being murdered, a lot of department energy dealing with prison gangs. Some of those gangs had been around for decades, and they would recruit other inmates.”

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While Associate Warden R. Swift acknowledged, in a July court declaration, that Pelican Bay is the most restrictive of California's four security housing units, he vigorously denied allegations that the SHU itself amounts to torture. “I have seen inmates communicate within the pod through the perforated cell doors,” Swift said. “I have also seen inmates communicate through the air circulation vents within their cells. I have also seen SHU inmates communicate through the drainage pipes and doorways connecting exercise yards as well as over the wall that separates the exercise yards.”

Yet critics insist that a lack of sensory experience, prolonged for years, can cause lasting psychological damage. The Pelican Bay SHU — along with similar security housing facilities in Corcoran State Prison, California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, and California State Prison Sacramento — have engendered enough controversy to spur multiple human rights investigations and hunger strikes. A strike in 2011 lasted about three weeks, and resulted in tweaks to the rules for SHU sentencing. Critics say those reforms barely scratched the surface.

In 2009, SHU inmates Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell filed a civil rights lawsuit against then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Department of Corrections officials, protesting the terms of their confinement. Ashker had originally been convicted for burglary in 1982, but was placed in the SHU in 1990, charged with second-degree murder of his cell mate. In 1992 he was sentenced to live in the SHU indefinitely, having been “validated” as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang.

Ashker says that after more than two decades in the SHU, he suffers insomnia, hypersensitivity, anxiety, aggression, rage, lethargy, and difficulty concentrating or communicating. He says he hasn't been allowed to send photographs of himself to family members for 23 years. He and Troxell sought class-action status in May and the state filed opposition in July; the two parties will hold a case management conference on Aug. 22 to figure out how to proceed. According to Thornton, Ashker is one of the leaders behind the current hunger strike.

“The cycle of prison reform, followed by the return of substandard, subhuman conditions, is a hallmark of the history of American incarceration,” Sperry writes on the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility website, noting that efforts to develop more “humane” structures to house our criminals have never withstood the test of time.

In the present era, even, social theories about prison are often at cross-purposes with each other. It seems we're not entirely sure whether the role of incarceration is to get rid of the bad — which was the impetus for Pelican Bay's security housing units — or to promote the good, which is why new prison facilities, like the forthcoming Maple Street Correctional Center in Redwood City, will include drug rehabs and recreation centers.

Yet no matter how honorable their intent, these “reformatory” elements often serve as window dressing, Sperry says. He points out that over the last few decades, architects designed California prisons with all sorts of great amenities, including classrooms and gymnasiums. The day those prisons opened, the gyms were used as overflow dormitories, filled with beds to accommodate all the people imprisoned that year.

On a PBS segment that aired in July, prison architect Frank Greene said that there's no way for the industry to build its way out of a crime problem. He compared the mass production of modern prisons to a bucket with a hole in the bottom; there will never be enough. Architects and planners have scored 24 contracts to build new prison facilities over the past couple decades in California, but they haven't seen proportional numbers of contracts for schools, recreation centers, or mental health facilities, Sperry says.

He thinks that the best course for any human rights-oriented architect, right now, is to stop taking prison contracts altogether. “There's no point in building anything,” he says, “when we're all on a totally different page.”

Meanwhile, the architecture they're building continues to have profound effects on those who experience it. Czifra, who was released in 2003, is now married. He has a 6-year-old son. He's studying literature at UC Berkeley.

But he savors every sensory experience — even something as simple as turning a knob on the stove to heat a pot of water — because he knows what it's like not to have them. “Being in solitary confinement has that effect,” he says. “Nothing that is good in my life is ever lost on me.”

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