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San Francisco Group Staging Prison Design Boycott

Protesting what it characterizes the moral bankruptcy and rampant growth of our nation’s prison system, San Francisco-based Architects/Designers/ Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) has organized a boycott on the design, construction, and renovation of prisons across the country.

The group, which has about 300 members, began the boycott in September 2004, and has so far signed up about 270 boycotters, most of them in the design fields. The group’s president, Raphael Sperry, an architect at 450 Architects in San Francisco, says participants can help voice disapproval of the prison system’s treatment of inmates, along with the system’s inherent racial and social inequalities. But he points out that the effort is meant most of all to help stem the incredible growth of prisons in the U.S., which he says architects have helped accommodate. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of prisoners in the U.S. has grown from 1.8 million in 1980 to about 6.9 million in 2003. And according to the World Prison Population List, published in London, the incarceration rate in the United States stands at 701 people per 100,000, a rate higher than any other nation (by comparison, the median for European countries is 76.5, in South Asia it is 59, and in Africa it is 327) . To keep up with this growth, more than 3,300 prisons were built between 1990 and 2000, at a cost of almost $27 billion, according to a December 2000 article in Design Build magazine, which also quoted about 238 more projects in the works.


Sperry says he doubts the boycott will quickly halt the creation of new prisons, mentioning that even if architects stop contributing then prisons could get engineers to build them. But he is confident that the voice of architects could slowly begin to sway public opinion against the problems, and proliferation, of prisons.

“If we want to realize our vision for what the built environment should be like, we need to take leadership,” he says of designers. Sperry acknowledges that many architects who work on prison design are trying to furnish better surroundings, but says their time would be better spent building community centers and schools, whose construction budgets are eclipsed by the billions spent on new prisons.

One of the boycotters, Matthew Smith, a 32-year old architect in Seattle, quit his job at Seattle-based DLR Group, a major prison builder, after signing up.

"All I needed at that point was that level of encouragement to leave,” says Smith, of the Boycott. He had been working on the Oregon Men’s Prison before quitting his job last November. Smith says a few architects followed suit at his firm. He now works for Ron Wright and Associates in Seattle.

Sam Lubell