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Friday, June 9 • 10:00am - 10:20am
Unmaking Criminal Justice: From Carceral Design to Materiality of Accountability

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In recent decades, increasing number of design scholars have been probing into structural inequalities in society, shedding light on how socio-political, economic and environmental (in)justices shape and are largely shaped by material practices (i.e. design, architecture, arts and technologies) (Schultz et al. 2018). Their studies have examined a myriad of material means by which colonialism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy and social hierarchies have been systemically reproduced (Benjamin 2019; Costanza-Chock 2020; Pater 2021) In this presentation, I will focus on a particularly severe one in which all such forms of dominance and inequality are exerted the most, all at once: Criminal justice system. It is a designed system reified not only by prisons and physical incarceration, but also by other apparatuses such as surveillance, policing and data extractivism (Sperry 2014; Agid 2018; Kirkham-Lewitt 2020). As the incarceration rates continue to raise and afflict especially marginalized bodies worldwide, the exponential growth of the prison industry on a global scale makes prison design as one of the major business opportunities today for architects, designers and multinational corporations (Swan 2013). Within this “prison industrial complex” (Davis 2003), in the meantime, those who already come from vulnerable groups in society are exponentially criminalized, targeted as culprits and get trapped in penal institutions under the most inhumane conditions. From walls, bars, electronically controlled metal gates, blinding lights and uniforms to solitary confinement cells and smart surveillance technologies, the aesthetics and corporeality of punitive justice prove only the impossibility of rehabilitation, if not the incessant state-led ill treatment and recidivism.

Addressing these concerns, I will start the presentation with a critical overview of carceral design practices and the way these practices have historically impinged on bodies, both physically and otherwise (Sperry 2014). In doing so, I will look into not only the modern penal architecture (i.e. separate systems and penitential typologies), but also into contemporary reformist examples (i.e. Halden Prison in Norway and electronic monitoring for house arrest) which are heralded as “humane” yet continuing to consolidate the discipline, control and extreme vigilance. After problematizing ameliorative discourses of “building better prisons” and design practices for crime prevention, I will turn to radical and transformative possibilities. Prison abolitionists have long advocated a justice system that is not based on punishment, incarceration and retribution, but on accountability, restoration and reconciliation between victims, wrong-doers and other community members (Davis 2003; Kaba 2021). So, the question is how can transformative justice be translated into material practices today? To sketch out possible answer to this inquiry, I will speculate about abolitionist design standpoinds as practices of “critical making”. Some of these include refusing to create cruel designs such as solitary confinement cell and death row (i.e. like ADPSR [Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility] and DAP [Design as Protest] did); transforming vacant or in-service prison spaces, objects and technologies into social (i.e health, education, childcare) services; using architecture and design to make good use of community spaces (i.e. gardening as in Solitary Garden project); and communicating the conditions of imprisonment better (i.e. the visual book “Undocumented” by Tings Chak or architectural art project “1986 Or A Sphinx's Interior” by Robert Glas). I propose such moves, in lieu of design activism, as a form of “design acting”; an acting that “can be an act of actively thinking through the contradiction and diremption” for our potentially equitable futures (Dilnot 2015, 206). I consider design acting a form of “active envisioning” practices that do not consolidate status-quo but produce their own space of functioning by refusing to be part of the legal space that is hegemonic and domineering (Keshavarz 2020).


Agid, Shana. 2018. “‘Dismantle, change, build’: Designing abolition at the intersections of local, large-scale, and imagined infrastructures.” Design Studies 59: 95-116. DOI: 10.1016/j.destud.2018.05.006.

Benjamin, Ruha. 2019. Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambidge: Polity.

Costanza-Chock, Sasha. 2020. Design Justice: Community-led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

Davis, Angela. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.

Dilnot, Clive. 2015. “History, Design, Futures: Contending with What We Have Made.” In Design and the Question of History, edited by Tony Fry, Clive Dilnot and Susan C. Stewart, 131-271. London and New York: Bloomsbury

Kaba, Mariame. 2021. We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books.

Keshavarz, Mahmoud. 2020. The Design Politics of the Passport: Materiality, Immobility, and Dissent. London: Bloomsbury.

Kirkham-Lewitt, Isabelle. 2020. Paths to Prison: On the Architectures of Carcerality. New York: Columbia University Press.

Pater, Ruben. 2021. CAPS LOCK: How Capitalism Took Hold Of Graphic Design, And How To Escape From It. Amsterdam: Valiz

Sperry, Raphael. 2014. “Architecture, Activism and Abolition: From Prison Design Boycott to ADPSR’s Human Rights Campaign.” Incarceration: Scapegoat Journal 7: 29-37.

Schultz, Tristan, et al. 2018.“What Is at Stake with Decolonizing Design? A Roundtable.”Design and Culture: The Journal of the Design Studies Forum10(1): 81-101. DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2018.1434368.

Swan, Rachel. 2013, August 21. “Punishment by Design: The Power of Architecture Over the Human Mind.” SF Weekly. https://www.sfweekly.com/news/punishment-by-design-the-power-of-architecture-over-the-human-mind/ [Accessed on June 6, 2017]



University of Minho

Friday June 9, 2023 10:00am - 10:20am EDT
PS 401 (Design Center)