Prison Abolition, by Tara Selvaraj

October 7, 2020

[Reading List]

Why, as a Society, Do We Choose to Model Cruelty and Vengeance?

Recent events such as the murder of Breonna Taylor on March 13, 2020 brought to light issues with the cruelty and vengeance model of North America’s current “public safety” system. The current incarceration system, or the prison–industrial complex, criminalizes people who pose no significant safety risk to the public. Prison abolitionists and the movement to defund the police call for a shift to a more proactive stance. By prioritizing investments in community health and safety, we can provide the resources needed to prevent punishment and violence as a means to accomplish public safety.

Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) has contended since the launch of their “Alternatives to Incarceration” campaign that an appropriate design response to mass incarceration is to refuse commissions for prisons. The ADPSR shares the values of the prison abolition movement in “calling for government investment in jobs, education, housing, and health care instead of prison infrastructure—all the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life.”2

Ruth Wilson Gilmore suggests that “the practice of putting people in cages is a central feature in the development of secular states, participatory democracy, individual rights, and contemporary notions of freedom.”3 In a depersonalized society, this system wedged between ethics and law was to make people feel safe among a “society of strangers.”4 In theory, the justice system was designed to be righteous, yet those who fill prisons have collectively lacked political clout, and have dominantly been working or workless poor, most of whom are not white.5

Taking a look at the four concepts that Gilmore presents on why societies decide they should lock people up; retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation; we can see how prisons do not accomplish what they pretend.Research suggests more policed, and imprisoned neighbourhoods produce greater instability, which makes me question the likelihood of retribution and deterrence. Rehabilitation is also improbable since it has been concluded that prison cells can induce or worsen mental illness, and released prisoners are met with laws and fiscal constraints that lock them out of education, employment, housing, and many other stabilizing institutions of everyday life.7 Prisons not only have violated human rights and failed at rehabilitation; it is not even clear that prisons deter crime or increase public safety.

So, Why Was There a Massive Growth in North American Prisons in the 1980s?

Gilmore states that the most accepted explanation is that more prisons were built as an effect of increased crime. She discredits this by showing us statistics of crime rates dropping in 1980, two years before the start of the prison boom. She says, “while social deviance might not have increased, aggressive intolerance pays handsome political dividends as crime became public anxiety number one.”8

If the prison boom wasn’t the result of increased crime, we must look to other explanations. Among these are racial cleansing, the pursuit of profits, incarceration to provide jobs to rural areas, and the reform school.9 Of these, there are certain explanations of prison growth that people cling to such as “a significant number of people are in prison for nonviolent drug convictions; that prison is a modified continuation of slavery, and, by extension, that almost everyone in prison is Black; and that corporate profit motive is the primary engine of incarceration.”10 Gilmore scrutinizes these explanations, arguing that the problem with these common misconceptions isn’t just that they are false, but that they reinforce racial stereotypes and allow for policy positions aimed at minor or misdirected reforms. For Gilmore, “prisons are partial geographical solutions to political economic crisis, organized by the state.”11 While others, including Raphael Sperry, cite “mandatory minimum sentences, the “War on Drugs,” and three-strikes laws and so on as the proximate causes of the prison population boom.”12 Whether or not racial cleansing was the cause of the prison boom, racial disparity in the prison system is evident, as two-thirds of the U.S. prison population is Black or Latin American.13 As Sperry states, we often see that “Structural racism pervades the criminal justice system as people of colour are disproportionately targeted for police stops, tougher charges, more frequent conviction, and longer sentences.”14

­The causality of the prison-industrial complex may not be particularly clear, as we see from Sperry and Gilmore’s critical perspectives. Still, the effects in the communities that surround prisons can be seen and addressed.

Does the Architect, Planner or Designer Have an Ethical Duty to Work for Public Benefit?

While architects do not decide the treatment of prison occupants or the buildings’ size and density, they are arguably accomplices by providing spaces essential to the operator’s inhumane activities. “The walls and locks of a prison trap inmates in crowded proximity. The predictable consequence is hostile interaction; rape, assault, and murder, that is said to be unofficial punishment facilitated by building design.”15  The building type involves a clear intent to violate well-established interpretations of international human rights standards, an argument the ADPSR included in their petition to The American Institute of Architects (AIA).16 

Sperry warns us that while several case studies for more sensitive prison design show us that incarceration can be transformed into a truly rehabilitating endeavour, we should be wary of “better” prisons as conversations about public investment in community health and safety can have far more transformative outcomes.17 Prisons sit on the edge but are not an isolated infrastructure. Government organized and funded dispersal of marginalized people from urban to rural locations suggests that problems stretch across space in a connected way and that arenas for activism are less segregated than they seem.18 Gilmore and Sperry both argue that geography is essential as strategies and investments must be contextualized and targeted in particular areas and with a fine-grained spatial logic.19 ADPSR recommends that planners and design professionals engage with a community-design model to accurately identify the community’s individualized needs. They also call for a planning approach that brings together the criminal justice and public health fields, so that communities can assess their assets and needs together.20 In conclusion, the Prison Abolition movement calls for architects and designers to not only redesign prisons themselves but to work across disciplines to redesign the entirety of the prison-industrial complex. A call to not blindly meet the needs of our clients, but instead, to consider social justice and activism as part of our fields.

Raphael Sperry, “Architecture, Activism, and Abolition: From Prison Design Boycott to ADPSR’s Human Rights Campaign,” Scapegoat, no. 7 (Fall/Winter, 2014): 30.

Ibid, 29-37.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Introduction,” in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 11.  

Ibid, 15.


Ibid, 14.

Ibid, 17.

Ibid, 20.

Ibid, 20.

10 Rachel Kushner, “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind,” New York Times, April 17, 2019,

11 Wilson Gilmore, “Introduction,” 26.

12 Sperry, “Architecture, Activism, and Abolition,” 29.

13 Wilson Gilmore, “Introduction,” 7.

14 Sperry, “Architecture, Activism, and Abolition,” 29.

15 Arthur Allen, “A Dilemma of Democracy: Architecture, Politics and Prison Design,” Vancouver, June 5, 2016.

16 Sperry, “Architecture, Activism, and Abolition,”34.

17 Ibid, 35.

18 Wilson Gilmore, “Introduction,” 11.

19 Sperry, “Architecture, Activism, and Abolition,” 36.

20 Ibid.

13 responses to “Prison Abolition, by Tara Selvaraj”

  1. michellebrais says:

    I would like to speak to the cruelty and vengeance model of North American “public safety.” It reminded me of the discussion we had in our first course on Charmaine Nelson’s class’ report on Canadian slavery and what Ijeoma Oluo writes about American police in her book, So you want to talk about race. In our first discussion in this class, we learned about the history of Canadian slaves trying to escape their owners through the search warrants published by their owners. Oluo, in her book, writes that the first intended purpose of police of the time in New England was in fact to track down the escaped slaves and send them back to their owners (Slave Patrols) and to control black and Native American populations (Night Patrols). The criminal system that we are experiencing today was actually founded on violence and control of racialized people. This police and iterations of it later were known to not only control but terrorize black people and some were even members of the Ku Klux Klan. So, the police force was not originally instated to overlook public safety, it was created to police black Americans to the benefit of white Americans.

  2. Muhammad Awan says:

    Thank you for sharing a great article Tara. What prisons were created to achieve in theory, is far from what they achieve in reality, where they are more so used as tools of exploitation and political gain. The profession of architecture is complicit in creating cages that facilitate inhumane “unofficial punishments” and destroy mental health to an irrevocable degree. In this regard, the ADSPR and AIA must rightly be heavily involved and follow through on a community-design model that addresses upstream factors that contribute to crime and violence rather than just redesigning prisons. But, when it comes to addressing upstream factors, the political establishment is far more guilty in its refusal to deal with political economic crises while continuously using prisons as partial (and clearly ineffective) solutions. We have known for quite some time now that the most appropriate response to crime and violence is committing resources towards building a healthy community (i.e. public investments in social infrastructure targeted in particular areas that are traditionally under-served). In order for this broader community-planning process to take place the political establishment has to make it clear that a new way of responding to crime and violence will be utilized, one that does not involve simply locking people up in cages. For at its heart, this is an issue of community design not prison design.

  3. Aamirah says:

    Thank you for the essay and readings that you shared on such an important topic. The irony that heavier policing correlates to higher rates of crime clearly indicates that complex issues within a population cannot be addressed by a single “catch all solution,” to quote Gilmore. From the two main readings this week, I gathered that constructing more prisons simply encourages more people to be thrown into them in order to validate them being built in the first place. While the term ‘prison’ evokes words along the lines of justice and fair retribution, years and years of constructing deep ties between those words can have severe repercussions. We can become blind to human rights violations and atrocities hiding under the guise of ‘prison’ and all that it suggests, as we see in situations past and even present, thus breaching the very foundations upon which the justice system was built.

    I would like to add that I appreciate your outline of the prison abolition and defund the police movements. Thinking about how to divert investments from prisons and thus punishment/violence, to communities and simultaneously their safety, further reveals the responsibility that architects have to meet the needs of the public. If the prison has become the crime, then what designs will lead to the opposite in order to change the current default strategies for community safety.

  4. Olivera Neskovic says:

    Tara, the readings in combination with the video you included with Ruth Gilmore were incredibly informative. Thank you for sharing such a range of knowledge. Gilmore is a refreshingly optimistic thinker, and she is just as captivating on camera as in her writing. The following is a phrase that Gilmore repeats a few times in the video that really stuck with me: Capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.

    Gilmore vividly describes the history leading up to the present-day situation and shows us that the problem is not as simple as the basic arguments about racism, drugs and violence that are often tossed around in relation to the prison industrial complex. It was enlightening to learn that prisons are built as a result of, and as a geographical solution to labour and capital surplus. Knowing this, we can understand that racism plays such a large role in prison demographics because it is fundamentally rooted in the American and European history of slavery and genocide, which continuously reproduces itself over time. It is evident that the solution to the problem is to concentrate these surpluses elsewhere, particularly in programs which aim to repair the damage done to communities by prisons and equip people with the skills and support to live healthy lives. Violence and harsh punishment do not serve communities and cannot hold such a large place in society.

    A professor in my undergrad had the habit of beginning his first-year lectures by teaching us that architects must often ask themselves: Am I creating an architecture of doom? This question is applicable to all architecture firms that continue to contribute through the skills they offer. I agree with the above comments in that, dismantling the prison system as architects means meeting the needs of the public, and refusing to design inhumane architectures. As architects, we must align ourselves with prison abolitionist movements such as the ADSPR, while demanding that architectural organizations support us in the fight against mass incarceration.

  5. Zoe Goodman says:

    Tara thank you for this enlightening essay and collection of readings. As with the rest of the topics so far, it has been extremely interesting to dive into history to look into the roots of the current incarceration system.

    Your closing sentence struck me. It makes me think of the tourists who were blind to the history of the “Monument to Discoveries” in Geographies of Racial Capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore. The statue of James Mcgill or the photo of Ramsay Traquair hanging in the school of architecture at Mcgill. We can be so blind to these monuments and buildings, symbols of long-standing issues rooted in this (racial) capitalism if we don’t put in the work to uncover the truth.

    As you mentioned in your essay, Sperry makes it clear that architects can be blind to the power they have when it comes to reforming not only prison designs but also incarceration systems in general. Her warning about “more sensitive prison designs” is a call for architects who may not have considered the responsibility and power they have to change this conversation from prison design to community health and safety. We as architects need to push back on things that don’t align with our values, and seriously consider the implications our designs may have in the future.

  6. Michael Nugent says:

    Thanks Tara for pulling together the readings and the incredibly insightful essay. One of the biggest issues I had with the prison and correctional system in the US is the often overlooked life long consequences of a criminal record. Gilmore too glossed over this, only dedicating a few sentences: ‘Laws (such as lifetime bans from financial aid)… lock former prisoners out of education, employment, housing, and many other stabilizing institutions of everyday life’. Former felons in many, if not all states (need a fact check here), lose their voting rights. Not to mention the non-legislated discriminations they will continue to face. Given the massive rise in incarcerations Gilmore and Sperry’s discuss, these additional, blanket restrictions add an further penalties and obstacles to the majority of former inmates who committed non-violent crimes. The notion of ‘do the crime, serve the time’ no longer exists, with a single conviction and imprisonment irreparably altering the course of someone’s life and putting them into a system that unfortunately will likely see them return to prison. In many ways it seems as though the current “correctional” system in the States is creating almost a caste system in which former felons will face a lifetime of reduced rights and penalties. All of which are layered on top of the cruelty of the current prison system and the racial discrimination within the “justice” system. While completely agree with that architects have a moral obligation to play in the design of prisons. As citizens, we have a moral obligation to push for, and vote in officials who support, legislative reform of these unnecessarily cruel systems.

  7. Ke Yan Ye says:

    The main issue in prison design lies in contradicting goals between politicians and designers. As highlighted by Arthur Allen in ‘A Dilemma of Democracy’, “provincial architectural legislation and regulatory power delegated to the profession requires that on prison projects, architects must be engaged” in Canada and in the United States. Many ironies can be found in this obligation: while architecture professional orders request its members to satisfy all requirements of their clients, no architect in democracies can be forced to serve any client. While architects design spaces for building occupants, they don’t decide on how the spaces are utilized and how the people are treated. While architects are asked to serve public interest, their code of ethics makes no comment on human rights…and so on.

    Criminal justice and prison institutions in Canada and the United States have a long history based on ‘incapacitation’ defined by R. W. Gilmore as the simplistic act of locking people up so they cannot make trouble outside of the prison. Architects and activists like ADPSR, on the other side, are fighting for community-design models and for public health and safety systems based on therapeutic and mental rehabilitation. While one is not ambitious in behavioral and psychological rehabilitation, the other needs to resist the actual regulations posed by the engine of incarceration to propel social change. Therefore, the first step to address prison design should be to update the Code of Ethics of professional associations so that architects are not forced to work against their moral and ethical values in the first place. In the prison abolition movement, the first thing to abolish is the professional complicity in human rights abuses.

  8. Andrew Ashbury says:

    Thank you Tara for collecting this great set of readings and the video.
    It was inspiring to read scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s chapter and about her work towards prison abolition: I was struck by how clearly she emphasizes the complexity of these problems and the peril of more popular simplistic understandings. For example, the solutions are much more complex than simply eliminating private prisons—profit-oriented companies are a very small percentage of prisons and therefore the vast majority of prisoners are idle within government systems that are far from profitable and instead lobby for ever more gigantic public budgets. These readings challenged be to begin to look at mass incarceration within the much broader system of racial capitalism, how it emerges from a very complex web of forces including “surplus land, capital, labor, and state capacity,” but also how it reveals the diversity of forces for change such as local groups, environmentalists, unions, etc. that can all be organized against a new prison. The complexity reveals problems within compromised reforms and emphasizes the need to focus on the higher goal of total abolition and changing the conditions that lead to violence in the first place.
    For me, the question of abolition and boycotting prison design seems even more clear for Canadian architects in light of Arthur Allen’s article “A Dilemma of Democracy” and the Raphael Sperry’s “Architecture, Activism, and Abolition”: even the most progressive prison design becomes an immediate accomplice in human rights abuses as soon as a new “tough justice” regime is elected.

  9. Christina Mahut says:

    Thank you Tara for addressing such a conflicting subject in an eloquent and provocative way. I am grateful for you engaging with the role of designers on this subject. It is not touched upon enough in school. We have the power to transform our society and such historically embedded issues, and we must use our agency wisely.

    It is obvious that the mission of the prison abolition movement is a very long standing one. However, I admit that before these last years, I was unaware of why the prison system was so flawed and problematic. I read into media narratives, assuming that prison was in fact a facility for correction and social rehabilitation. It wasn’t until watching documentaries like 13th and reading the essays and books you suggested, that I realized and continue to digest that prisons are more often than not, a form of legal slavery, or as Gilmore put it, a form of depersonalized social control. Indeed, this form of social control has allowed for structural and systemic racism, to exist and even thrive, under the pretext and veil of bureaucracy, and it is maddening. The fact that the Department of Correction has become the largest state agency in California, employing over 54 000 people, is shocking. The reality that the dispossession of people, and of their rights is now a profitable industry, just like apple products or kombucha, is not right. When the prison system became a capitalist industry, creating jobs and stimulating the economy, it changed from being a public institution for societal betterment and growth, to one that will always prioritize further expansion, no matter the human cost. This shows how cleverly and cruelly designed the system is, and how hard it will be to deconstruct. But we must keep fighting.

  10. Jugal Patel says:

    This has been my favourite set of readings thus far! Also props to Tara for (potentially) sending people down the right sort of radicalization channels Youtube has to offer.

    Ruth Wilson Gilmore is a giant in Geography, and no doubt because she points out undeniable realities both in Golden Gulag as well as in her work on racialized geographies across systems embedded in capitalism. While hack-scholars may go back and forth on whether inequality is an inherent characteristic of capitalism, there is no question that mass incarceration fails in each of Gilmore’s four rationalizations for why a society might imprison individuals. Her critiques here are undeniable as they are rooted in material reality, and not in simplistic misconceptions that reinforce racialization. I think her lens – a destructionist approach maybe – is helpful in almost all of the ways race, colonialism, and orientalism are spatialized.

    There is relatively little in way of good faith argument that architects are not directly implicated in the oppressive structures we aim to critique. Your profession must do what every other profession must do: build, first, unions that can represent your work and labour; then build international solidarity for architects worldwide. As you place the importance of collective labour rights internationally, you will be targeting the very real racialized structures that lead you to believe whether or not accepting the next prison gig is ethical. Obviously, my politics have seeped in here, but I’ll leave with saying I look forward to listening to the architect’s perspective in class today!

    BTW for fellow twitter users, check out this mash-up account of Ruth Wilson Gilmores work and the popular tv show Gilmore Girls:

  11. Christopher Clarke says:

    Prisons are a way to keep people of colour in a modern enslavement, inducing our incapacitation. In the US, most of those people are African American, for a continuation of their heritage of slavery. However, in Canada, the majority of those in prison are Indigenous, which is a continuation or our former, and some could argue current, confinement and attempted genocide.
    In Canada, I believe we see higher rates of Indigenous people in prison due to the social issues, like residential school, creating intergenerational trauma. As in the states, prison wears out communities by wearing out their people, Indigenous people have already been worn down as a whole, which creates social issues that then send our people to prison. Nevertheless, systematic racism has also played a major part in this disparity, with a higher number of Indigenous people getting sentenced to prison compared to their white counterparts.
    Thus, in Canada in particular, the disparity of a much higher per capita number of Indigenous people in prisons starts with rectifying those social issues inducing crime in the first place. At the same time, we must eliminate those who are contributing to systematic racism. For the later, we might be able to simply look at statistics of particular judges that significantly differently sentence Indigenous people to prison over non-Indigenous people. However, the social issues faced by us as Indigenous people are massive, and we need to put considerable effort into rectifying those immediately.
    Having worked with the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation [AIWF] in Yellowknife, I saw firsthand the help that traditional healing can bring new light to those in prison. The AIWF works with healing many people, including those that are now homeless due to confinement in prison, which occurred because of issues with intergenerational trauma. Widespread Indigenous healing through the creation of a network of Indigenous Wellness Centres will play a huge part in decreasing the number of Indigenous people in prison, as well as solving a wide variety of other social issues among our Peoples.

  12. Rachel Law says:

    The term “prison abolition” may bring about fear in some, but truly at its core, abolition is about imagining a new social order in which incapacitation is not the most widely accepted condition. Sperry believes that future-oriented, visionary mindset allows for architects and designers to engage more thoroughly in activism.
    For Gilmore, the complexity of the relations between slavery, race, unfreedom and labour have been ingrained into our capitalist society. The prison-industrial complex finds itself intertwined in these complex relationships. The wide prison network has capitalized on our anxieties and turned criminal justice and public safety into a major political and economic driver.
    In North America, the touted right to individual freedom is heavily ingrained in our culture and society. However, freedom is not merely the absence of enslavement or policing of your movements, but the presence of beneficial social and political and economic relationships. But who has access to those relationships? Who is withheld from partaking in them?
    This again can be seen through the lens of our colonial history and racial capitalism.
    As citizens, it is crucial for us to collectively advocate for new social organizations, one that is more inclusive and proactive in perpetuating a model of care over punishment. As architects, we are positioned in the centre of the discussion only because we have access to the policies, the client, and the geographical environment. It is our role as citizen architects to challenge the existing structures in place.

  13. Genna Kalvaitis says:

    Thank you Tara for curating such an incredible and thought provoking collection of literature and media regarding prison abolition.

    I found the introduction by Gilmore was the perfect way to open the discussion regarding why our society has embraced the idea that we should be locking humans up. Delving deeper in to the reasoning behind this social decision (and furthermore the reasons that do not hold up upon examination) brought to light some pressing questions. After fully accepting the clear need for the abolition of prisons and the caging of human beings, I am left with Gilmore’s question of “what comes next”?

    Sperry’s article really helped ground a lot of what Gilmore opened up. Outlining clear examples of reinvestment strategies, critiquing the flaws in well-intentioned prison design reform, and further expanding on the role of advocacy (its strengths and limitations) made the facts and strategies of prison abolition fully comprehensible. As architects, it is our duty to step up and do more than acknowledge that human rights are being violated within prison walls. It is our job to take this past being a “design challenge” and continuously advocate for the abolishment of prisons and the system of mass incarceration. It is our responsibility to work with public health and justice workers to imagine a future that is built on dignity and justice of all humans.

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