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

Wednesday, Aug 21 2013

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."

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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