Anne Holsinger 0:01

Hello, and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Anne Holsinger, Managing Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. In this episode, I’ll be speaking with Rafael Sperry, a past President of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. He was instrumental in the American Institute of Architects December 2020 Amendment to its professional code of ethics, banning members from designing execution chambers or spaces designed for torture, including solitary confinement. We will be discussing the intersection of architecture and human rights and how he worked to change the AIA’s ethics code. Mr. Sperry, thank you for joining us.

Raphael Sperry 0:36

It’s a pleasure to be here.

Anne Holsinger 0:37

So first, could you please tell our listeners a little bit about Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility? What are the organization’s goals? And how did you get involved?

Raphael Sperry 0:46

Architects/Designers/and Planners for Social Responsibility, or ADPSR, is an independent nonprofit organization that dates back to about 1981. It was founded as part of the anti-nuclear movement and has a more contemporary mission about peace, social justice, environmental protection, and socially responsible development. I got involved in the Bay Area around 2000 when I moved here, and was very involved with environmentally conscious and natural building. And then in 2003, I was very involved with protesting the Iraq war and working for peace as an alternative and I was invited to join the Board at ADPSR because they want to have that perspective and that voice as well.

Anne Holsinger 1:23

And what was the role of the organization in changing the AIA ethics code?

Raphael Sperry 1:28

I think we could take a lot of credit for that. We started petitioning AIA back in 2012 to change their code of ethics to bar the design of execution chambers and spaces for torture, including solitary confinement, and it took eight years. But in the end of 2020, they made exactly that change. So we wrote them letters, we wrote petitions. We were rejected three different times by different leadership at AIA, and then finally, when they decided that they wanted to change their code of ethics, they convened a working group led by the National Ethics Council, and we were part of that as well.

Anne Holsinger 1:58

Why do you believe it’s important for AIA to explicitly bar the design of spaces used for executions or torture?

Raphael Sperry 2:05

First, we probably ought to explain a little bit about what AIA is, as opposed to ADPSR. So AIA is the mainstream organization for architectural professionals in the United States. It represents over half of licensed architects, and they very much consider themselves the voice of the architecture profession. And just by contrast, AMA, the Medical Association, represents far less than 50% of registered doctors and pharmacists organizations who have also taken stances — they don’t represent nearly as many. So it’s pretty impressive for AIA to have that level of participation. I mean, I’ll also say that architecture is not politically tremendously powerful profession, but we do have a voice and AIA is that voice. It has, I think close to 90,000 members. So that’s who they are and they publish a code of ethics for their members that governs more than half of the architects in the United States. They don’t give you your state architecture license, but on the other hand, membership is clearly very valuable. Otherwise, you won’t have so many members and they provide continuing education, they provide networking, they provide opportunities for staff recruitment and development. At this point now that this is part of AIA’s code of ethics, if somebody who’s a member were to design a death chamber, or to design solitary confinement, they could be censured by the organization, or you can lose their membership over taking on a project like that. So it’s really important for professionals. I think it’s also really important because it shows that human rights matter, and that they protect everybody. And that it’s not just up to governments and lawyers to kind of advocate for human rights and participate in the human rights movement, but that actually, when we look at it, every occupation, every person has something at stake in human rights. We all benefit a lot from them and we all need to take our responsibility for protecting them and understanding how they show up in our day to day lives. Architects have been complicit in human rights abuse by designing execution chambers in the United States and spaces for solitary confinement — there’s over 40 specifically designed Supermax prisons that are all spaces for solitary confinement. The State of California designed a new execution chamber about 2010 — I’ve seen the design drawings for that. The state of Nevada had a new education chamber under design in the past five years, Oklahoma did renovations to their execution chambers. So these projects happen, they happen with the support of design professionals using the same tools that designers use every day trying to make — most of us try to make the world a better place. But to the degree that we have complicity in that and we need to take responsibility and taking responsibility means stopping doing these bad things.

Anne Holsinger 4:39

So, many states will still hold death row prisoners in long-term solitary confinement and the AIA code of ethics now effectively bans architects from designing both the execution chamber and the death row prison for that reason. Was that your intent?

Raphael Sperry 4:53

We initially viewed them as separate issues, although I certainly understood that death row housing tends to be in solitary. But solitary is about a lot more than death row and we wanted to, be comprehensive and ground our approach in human rights and not just say, well, we don’t like executions, but to say executions are a human rights violation. And when we looked at what the other buildings are that you could make a case that were human rights violations, clearly solitary confinement was a very serious part of that. And it’s not just death row housing, like I mentioned before, Supermax prisons, which house thousands and thousands of people. But then even your average medium security state prison or county jail tends to have what they call segregated housing or security housing. There’s kind of a lot of euphemisms for solitary confinement, basically. More sophisticated countries don’t do that. The United States seems to believe that that’s necessary from gated, controlled prisons. But you can see in other countries, that’s not actually necessary. So we wanted to focus on the human rights issues in human rights terms. And so we had to talk about solitary at all. Somehow, it feels like it’s not totally an accident that the people who are slated to be killed are tortured first by way of solitary confinement. And so I think by saying that it’s unacceptable for governments to kill or torture people, which is the human rights statement we were after, planning to kill somebody is not an excuse for torturing them first.

Anne Holsinger 6:22

So you mentioned the AMA earlier and some other professional organizations and the discussion around the ethics of architects designing execution chambers and medical professionals participating in executions has some parallels. In each case, you could argue that the involvement of someone with professional expertise could make the process more humane for the prisoner, but at the same time, it’s also argued that providing the illusion of humanity lends legitimacy to an inherently inhumane institution. Professional associations have now banned both the involvement of architects and the participation of various types of medical professionals. What message do you think it sends that groups like AIA, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, have all banned their members from being involved in the death penalty?

Raphael Sperry 7:06

Well, first of all, let me say that the leadership of the medical professional associations was really helpful to us and really inspiring. I don’t know that ADPSR, would have come up with this strategy and this approach if we hadn’t seen doctors and nurses and pharmacists doing this first. And also, in discussing with our colleagues at AIA, being able to point to a long list of medical professional associations that have taken this step was really helpful. And in fact, we were able to say, look, why would you design a room where a doctor is not going to go in there and act like a doctor? That was, I think, a really powerful argument to our colleagues about that. So we want to add our voice to what was clearly a growing group of professional associations. And hopefully that’s creating a message within American society that more and more elements of society are turning against the death penalty. ADPSR wanted the voices of AIA, and the broader profession, to join that course. And we very much hope that, for instance, when advocates are making the case in court or through media, that now we can say those not just doctors and nurses, which made sense, but pointing out that also architects are taking the stance, will just help more people identify with this point of view that it’s not okay to take away the rights of an individual, supposedly to protect the rights of majority. Which is kind of what I suppose the death penalty is about. It’s not really about that, but that’s kind of the superficial case, that defenders of the death penalty actually use. And I think in our case, there was also another powerful argument, which was, you might say that having a doctor participate in a lethal injection makes it more humane. But for architects, the basic question is, so someone’s gonna die in that room because you’re being asked to design it. Does your participation really make it better in any way? The goal is always to kill somebody, you know? And there’s no sugarcoating it when you just said, well, that’s just the goal. So there’s no better way to kill somebody.

Anne Holsinger 9:08

You mentioned advocates using this statement, and the Supreme Court has talked about the concept of the “evolving standards of decency” relating to the Eighth Amendment. So do you see this as something that attorneys could potentially use as evidence of that evolving standards of decency?

Raphael Sperry 9:23

Oh, I sure hope so. I mean, I think so, yes. So especially that’s really important jurisdiction around solitary confinement because, my understanding, is that human rights standards, which are international outside the United States, prohibit cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment — and clearly solitary confinement is degrading, but the Eighth Amendment only protects you from cruel and unusual punishment. And so if something is widespread in the United States, you have to make a case that the standard of decency has changed to that it’s also being found cruel now, and it didn’t used to be. And I think it’s very clear to say that yeah, you know, architects throughout the 80s, the 90s, 2000s, we were all designing plenty of prisons with solitary confinement. We built dozens of Supermax prisons. And now that our main professional organization — which represents some of the same people who actually did those buildings — said, we’re not going to do that anymore. That’s an incredibly clear change in the standard of decency that a major American profession is willing to accept. So I sure hope it’s strong. If you read the AIA code, and it’s not that long, in the part of solitary confinement, there’s a footnote that refers to the UN’s Mandela rules: the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners internationally. So I think for advocates who are looking for that evolving standard of decency, not only did architects say that we’re not going to do solitary confinement, but we said we think that international human rights are standard for us. And hopefully, that’ll really help bring international human rights standards into wider use in American courts. But I know that’s a long term question to ask.

Anne Holsinger 10:51

The American conception of prisons doesn’t typically emphasize the design of the space, and we often hear prisons described as warehousing people. So what are the architectural considerations that go into designing a prison? And how do your professional ethics fit into that?

Raphael Sperry 11:05

Well, that’s an interesting question. And it’s one that we’ve been engaged with at ADPSR even longer than specifically solitary and executions. Because our first step back into this was in 2003, asking architects to boycott the design of prisons and jails entirely to push for alternatives to incarceration. And at that time, a lot of people said, “Isn’t the problem that we need better conditions for prisoners?” If you don’t like mass incarceration, you know that your problem is that people in prisons are tough, because mass incarceration came from being tough on crime. But we really want to point people in a different direction because the problem with mass incarceration is actually not the conditions that people are being subjected to but the fact that they’ve had their liberty taken away and been given a criminal record and their whole life has been destroyed, most likely, for offenses that in any other country would not result in any criminal penalties whatsoever. When you look at the per capita incarceration rates in United States, they are so much higher than other countries. When you look at the racial disparities of who’s going to jail, it’s pretty clear that our incarceration system is about targeting poor Black and brown people and producing their state’s kind of, you know, the argument of Michelle Alexander’s fantastic book, “The New Jim Crow.” And you can’t make up for that by designing a nicer prison because your employment opportunities have been taken away, your career has been totally put on hold at best, but probably destroyed. Our campaign was prison design boycott for alternatives to incarceration, saying, we’re not going to make up for this by providing nicer prisons. What we should be doing — yes there are real problems with crime and violence in American society. Let’s design spaces that actually address those root causes of crime and violence, which include actually kind of racism and targeting of poor communities of color. So that would lead towards designing more affordable housing, better schools. A lot of people in prison and jail have mental health and substance abuse problems, that’s very well known. One of the one things that’s been happening the past 10 years is more progressive jurisdictions say, “Let’s design a new jail for mental health and substance abusing people,” when the research shows that people with mental health and substance abuse problems don’t get better in jail. If you want them to get better, you have to treat them in a community setting, for the most part. And we were like why don’t we just design community centers for those people — put designed places in communities for mental health and substance abuse counseling and treatment? And let’s not wait for people to commit crimes and hurt somebody else before we give them the opportunity to access those services. Obviously, that’d be a huge change in public funding for services. It’s affordable, because all the money that we’re spending on jails could be spent on other things. It just hasn’t happened politically because it hasn’t gotten the public support that it needs and so that was where this idea of kind of campaigning on that prison design boycott for alternatives to incarceration came from. And architects, again, we’re not the most politically powerful profession, we can’t make that happen, but ADPSR’s kind of organizational conscience felt like we can’t just wait around for our clients to give us different projects. We have to tell clients what we think they should be asking for.

Anne Holsinger 14:17

So to build on that a little bit, how do you think the design of prisons and jails affect the mental health and rehabilitation of prisoners? And are there examples that we can look to of particularly punitive or particularly rehabilitative prison design?

Raphael Sperry 14:31

I mean, you’re asking about the design of prisons. But as I just said, I think that we can’t solve the problem through designing prisons because the problem is putting people in prison who don’t belong there in the first place. And even beyond that, the problem is that our prison system is a built example of the kind of racism and violence that’s inherent in American culture. So we really need to try and change our own culture. Certainly there are designs that are more amenable to rehabilitation. You can look at some of the work that’s done in Norway there’s the famous Halden Prison or Austria, The Leoben Prison or Bastoy Island Prison, also in Norway, which actually build on the kind of early correctional thinking of the United States from the 1960s and 1970s — that was their model. The United States stopped implementing what we call “corrections” back then and went into this kind of tough on crime model, where we tried to design prisons that were very much focused on just maintaining control of large groups of people with the minimum amount of staffing. So the financial aspect of incarcerating such a large group and as a response to kind of the prisoner uprisings in Attica and elsewhere, the sense of the jurisdictions never want to lose control of people. But my feeling is that if there’s no change in the public attitude towards the people who are in prison, you could design a Taj Mahal, and you would still have American prison guards beating people senseless, leaving blood on the floor there, because that happens in American prisons every day — and you could do that anywhere. There’s more cases where that’s happened: new prisons with supposedly better designs, you transfer the prisoners in there who were held by this jurisdiction and you transfer the current profit guards who are not respectful. They don’t have that kind of training. They’re not well paid. But I think the biggest thing about the difference between Norway or in Germany, when people get sent to prison there, that culture expects that those folks are going to come back, and that they’re actually going to return to the same communities where the majority of citizens live. They want them to be prepared to be contributing members of society and they want them to come back better. Because of the racism in the United States, the majority of voters and taxpayers who are paying for prisons — who are middle class white people or working class white people — they don’t feel like they have much in common with the large numbers of Black and brown people from segregated communities. You know, residential segregation is another part of this. And so you can’t solve that by making nicer buildings. We really need a much bigger change.

Anne Holsinger 17:01

In addition to the amendment to the code of ethics, AIA issued a statement earlier in 2020, in response to nationwide protests for racial justice, and in that statement, the organization apologized that it had not worked to correct, “The built world’s role in perpetuating systemic racial injustice.” They offered examples like designing segregated housing and municipal projects that destroyed communities of color. What do you think is the role of architects and designers in addressing racial injustice today?

Raphael Sperry 17:31

I think we’ve got an important role. And I was I was saying earlier that like, if you look around every occupation or profession, you can find how its day to day activities connect to human rights and prison design was one intersection of architecture with that, but there are others. And if we look around, we can find how your activities, your profession historically and today, is part of perpetuating racial injustice in United States because everybody’s doing it whether you want to or not, it’s very hard to avoid because it’s been so built into the United States. I mean, I think it was appropriate for AIA to recognize that there are past injustices — redlining and the design of segregated neighborhoods are really, really problematic, and we’ve done that for close to 100 years now so we have a lot to answer for and a lot to try and change in our professional practice. AIA, I don’t think in that statement, mentioned prison expansion. We’ve built over 5,000 prisons and jails since the 1950s in order to take our prison population, to allow it to increase by 60 times. Usually people would say that in order to address racial injustice, you have to recognize the injustices of the past in order to seek justice in the future, so that’s part of what as an organization conscience ADPSR has encouraged them to do. I think a correlation of that is that architecture is really a white, male dominated profession. And I know like every branch of American society is white, male dominated still a lot, but a lot of professions and kind of more elite activities have made better progress than architecture. For example, getting away from that, I think medicine has, certainly law has. And if you look at the Biden administration, there’s a lot of people who are capable of doing the most important leadership jobs in our society, they found who are people of color. But if you look at the average architecture firm, you will not see that level of diversity. So some of the work that the profession has to do with our role in addressing racial justice — I mean, the stuff that we design needs to be designed for racial integration and healing. But the professionals need to work to become more diverse and inclusive and equitable. There’s a lot of well intentioned people trying to do that. That takes a lot of work. I think there’s a connection there that the design process itself needs to be more inclusive towards excluded communities. A lot of times, a real estate developer hires you as an architect because they want to put up these condos on this block. All you do is you talk to a real estate developer, you talk to the neighbors. One of the challenges of gentrification, or one of the ways to deal with it, is like if a developer — the architects could be part of the team that spoke to the community around and understood what their needs were and a project could be designed in a way that would be much more accommodating to people who already live in the neighborhood and help to improve their neighborhood rather than looking to displace people. There’s a lot around community empowerment that can be achieved through that approach; it’s called community design. And then lastly, I think there is a real need for specific kinds of buildings and spaces that people who have historically been oppressed in this country need in order to have a good quality of community life and kind of economic opportunity and full participation. One really key but narrow version of that is the alternatives to incarceration. We’ve spent 50 years building jails and prisons to house poor people of color, but what they need — you know reentry housing, support services, and public schools, colleges, and restorative justice centers. I’m part of a Board of an organization closely related to ADPSR, called Designing Justice and Designing Spaces, which is a Black led architecture firm that works to design exactly those kinds of buildings. So there’s certainly the opportunity there, but the challenge is that the funding isn’t there. So the architects are really into designing those spaces and some of us, like Designing Justice Designing Spaces, are really developing the skill to do that in a community design kind of way with that kind of process. And we need partnership from government and the rest of society to reorient what’s getting built here, so that we can afford to build restorative justice centers and diversion centers, instead of jails and prisons and courthouses.

Anne Holsinger 21:31

What kind of design considerations go into something like a restorative justice center?

Raphael Sperry 21:35

I think the number one consideration is having a community design process and in the case of restorative justice center, one that’s trauma-informed as well because the people you’re dealing with are from communities that have historically been traumatized in the United States. And there hasn’t been a lot of design research. Many devoted to what kinds of spaces lead to good outcomes for these kinds of people and what kind of spaces help people feel at home and comfortable, so there’s a need for a lot of design research. And the way you do that, especially when you’re working with disempowered people, is to use the design process to empower them. So you need to kind of have the time to work with groups of participants to really get their voices included and create ways that they can engage. So DJDS, for instance, has designed a number of game type of tools, where sometimes it’s like 3d models where people can sketch out their vision with tools that they’re comfortable with. Sometimes it’s like, we have a version on financing different parts of the program where you can play poker chips and talk about how much money you want to allocate towards housing or food, restorative programs, or the different kinds of things that might happen on site. I think it’s just as much about the process as it is about the design feature themselves at this point.

Anne Holsinger 22:44

So to come back a little more specifically to the death penalty. We’ve talked about this new policy against designing execution chambers, and most members of the public will never see an execution chamber in person. How do you think the invisibility of the space itself affects the public perception of the death penalty? Do you think that people’s opinion of capital punishment would shift if they saw things like solitary confinement cells in which death row prisoners are housed? Or the room in which executions take place?

Raphael Sperry 23:12

Yeah, I think it would. But people also need to have some help understanding those spaces. The invisibility of the death chambers — becuase the death chamber is like the pinnacle of the punitive criminal justice system — but the vast majority of the criminal justice system is actually made to be largely invisible because it’s pushed out to rural areas, because there’s a lot of legal rules about not being able to visit. In the past, some forms of punishment were more visible, like public executions, but on the other hand, in the past, prison buildings were almost always pushed to the perimeter of cities, if not beyond. There’s a long tradition of kind of keeping them away and I think that because visibility makes them less popular and [UNKNOWN]. But on the other hand, bringing visibility to them today — like execution chambers for lethal injection are pretty banal. Unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s like an empty room, there’s a couple of special ports in the wall where the hoses go from the injection room to the execution room, and a one way mirror, and stuff like that. So it takes some education to understand what that kind of space is about. In the same way that medical professionals have spoken up and said killing somebody with sedatives isn’t a painless procedure, so it’s important. I think that’s part of what ADPSR hopes to do. Professionals who understand the specifics need to help the public also understand what’s wrong with the setup of execution or, for that matter, solitary confinement because solitary confinement cells many times look exactly like a standard prison cell and they also look very sterile, you know. It’s an empty concrete box and there’s the stainless steel appliance in there. They’re actually really violent places, a lot of times. I mean, if you can get the photos when they’re actually being used, they’re covered in blood, covered in feces. You know, it can be quite distressing to see them. But the government really tightly controls what kinds of images get out, so I think it’s important for people to see what they really look like and for professionals to help people see them.

Anne Holsinger 25:10

Is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners?

Raphael Sperry 25:13

I’d just like just reiterate my hope that advocates, who I assume are some of your listeners, can make some use out of the work that ADPSR and AIA have done. I mentioned three cases of execution chamber being designed, maybe there’s one where it happens. You know, there’s one project in the country every other year or something like that and if organizations can’t get an AIA architect to do it for them, they might use a non-AIA architect, you know, or they might just continue to use their old death chamber. This is not going to stop executions all by itself. It’s part of the movement, so I hope other people in the movement can make use of it because I think it’s just as valuable to talk about the fact that architects won’t design execution chambers as it is for architects to actually stop.

Anne Holsinger 25:59

Well, thank you so much for taking time to share your expertise.

Raphael Sperry 26:02

Oh, my pleasure. Thanks, Anne.

Anne Holsinger 26:03

If our listeners want to learn more about the work of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, they can visit To learn more about the death penalty, visit DPIC’s website at And to make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe to Discussions with DPIC on your podcast app of choice.