A HUMANE APPROACH

Not surprisingly, given America's large incarcerated population, the trend around the country is definitely toward increased jail sizes. “We are in another cycle of upgrowth,” says Cupples. He speculates that part of the problem may be a system that doesn't do a good job at releasing offenders back into society. Many return to the system very quickly via new offenses or basic parole violations. “We're in a spiraling cycle that keeps feeding itself like a hurricane,” Cupples says.

That is exactly what concerns California-based architect Raphael Sperry. Sperry believes that no amount of design, however high-quality, can remedy the flaws that he sees as inherent in the American justice system, including a failing War on Drugs and three-strikes legislation. In 2004, Sperry and a group of volunteers launched the Alternatives to Prisons program (formerly known as Prison Boycott) through the nonprofit group Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. Nearly 1,000 architects and designers have signed a petition pledging to boycott the design, construction, or renovation of a jail or prison within their practice.

“You can design something with the best intentions, you can design something that's supposed to rehabilitate people, but there is no guarantee that it's going to be operated that way,” Sperry says. “The classrooms and gymnasiums in California jails, for example, are used for overflow housing.” Making jails and prisons larger won't have any effect on crime, Sperry says: “We've tried incarcerating everybody, and it isn't working. What we need are better solutions.”

In many ways, Ken Ricci is in agreement. He says that his firm has stopped designing prisons at the state and federal level because he does not believe architects can have much of an impact. As for jails: “Yes, I'm an architect and I want to build buildings, but there is something in our system that could be altered to reduce the size of our jails.” Ricci urges a big-picture approach to sustainable justice design that includes right-sizing jails and finding alternatives to incarceration (“LEED is very limiting for this building type,” he points out). He says that his firm has convinced clients to minimize the number of beds in a facility and look to the resources of social services. “Shouldn't our plan be to reduce the footprint and suggest that clients not solve everything through a building response?”

As for boycotting justice design altogether, Ricci doesn't believe architects have enough clout—rather, they should be in the trenches helping to change the system from within. “The need for law enforcement and justice is fundamental in any society.” That said, incarceration needs to be humane: “You go to prison as punishment. You don't go to prison for punishment. Prison should not be awful. It shouldn't be dangerous. The deprivation of your freedom, for an American, is punishment enough.”.