A Project Leveraging Retail Design’s Potential

as a Public Venue for Information, Dialog, and Activism

As of 2013:

1. New York.........................8,143,197

2. Los Angeles.....................3,844,829

3. Chicago............................2,842,518

4.  U.S. Prison Population.........2,300,000    

5. Houston........................... 2,016,582

Project Brief:

CITY 4 is a project to develop a brand identity and store design for a fictitious retail chain that sells products made by and for prisoners in U.S. prisons. The project uses the methods and materials of branding, spatial design, packaging, and point of purchase display to inform consumers about the role of prisoner labor in the prison industrial complex. The store serves as a public forum to discover and discuss the complexities and controversies surrounding the prison industry’s function in American culture. The project is intended to extend the responsible consumption debate, currently focused on issues of environmental sustainability and exploitation of foreign sweat shop labor, by demonstrating links between individual acts of consumption and this pervasive local means of production, links occurring in stores on the urban street.


As shown in the table above, if considered a “city” the prison population of the United States is the fourth largest city in the nation. This “city” has an economy increasingly tied to the larger economic structure in ways that negatively affect the actual urban areas from which the prisoner population is largely drawn.

The prison industrial complex has grown exponentially in the three decades since the ”war on crime” began. Since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by about 50 percent, clearly something is amiss.

The prison industrial complex is not a conspiracy, but a confluence of interests that has given prison construction in the United States a seemingly unstoppable momentum. It is composed of politicians, their constituents in economically challenged rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of development, and private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections as a lucrative market and profitable ready-made labor and facility base for manufacturing and service provision.

As the prisoner population is expanding, so are privatized Prisoner Labor Programs.

Prisoner labor, purchased at bargain rates from the government, accounts for significant production in areas as diverse as:

Glass, Plastic, and Metal Sorting for Recycling

Office Furniture Manufacturing

Textile and Garment Manufacturing

Electronics Assembly

Food Production and Processing

Dry Cleaning

Call Center Services

Landscaping Services

And, of course, License Plate and other Signage Fabrication

The prison labor force, once released, also provides a significant new source of recruits for the Armed Forces, which has decreased its prior-incarceration restrictions, prolonging the removal of these individuals from their urban lives.

While many products of this labor are destined for their mandated uptake at non-competitive prices by government procurement programs -- clothing, feeding, and furnishing the prisons themselves, the military, and federal, state, and local government institutions of all types from congressional offices to municipal golf courses -- other products are made specifically for the Mall under such brands as Revlon, Victoria’s Secret, Microsoft, JC Penny, Target, and Eddie Bauer. When 411 is dialed in the City of New York, the call is serviced by a prison laborer at the Chelsea Women’s Prison, under contract to Verizon.

The  Project

CITY 4 will be designed to bring to light features of this shadow urban infrastructure. It  proposes that the drain of more than one percent of the national population, up to 20% of urbanites between the ages of 18 and 30 in some areas, as well as the manufacturing and service base necessary to gainful employ them, out of the cities into suburban  jails and scattered rural prisons is challenging the terms of sustainability of the American city.

Presenting this information exhibit in the format of a new retail store chain on the city street involves not only the development of a critique of the prison industrial complex, but also of the troublesome pattern of the replacement of street storefront and manufacturing diversity with retail chain monoculture, shopping’s replacement of other forms of social engagement in neutral public space, the increasing privatization of public spaces and institutions in general,  and the potential of shopping (and design for shopping) as a form of social activism verses other forms of  identity construction and socialization.

The project is research into the development of a mode of architectural practice that engages the entirety of the research / programming / conceptualization / design / representation / coordination / construction skill sets in direct support of social activism.


There is certainly a risk that such a project, if developed solely from a design stance without the advisement of social scientists intimately involved in the relevant discourses, could land short of its intended role as a serious environment for the open and honest presentation of the various issues. It would be a hindrance to the complex prison labor debate if the project mistakenly glamorized the prison factory, or merely fetishized its products.  There is currently a high end brand of denim apparel, Prison Blues, manufactured in an Oregon prison under contract with a Japanese apparel company, marketed aggressively as fashion items in Japan using all the well-known techniques of glamorization (although it is marketed much more reservedly in the U.S.).  CITY 4 would use this as a model to avoid. The purpose of setting up a diverse informed Board of Advisors at the outset is to enmesh the design process in the relevant discourses, to ensure the appropriate sureness and sensitivity of its tone, strengthening it’s critique.

While the project is born from a serious concern over aspects of private industry’s role in prison labor, and privatization of public services and spaces in general. It will endeavor to remain open to ambiguities and possible benefits various interests can demonstrate.

The project is primarily an information exhibition in the guise of a store... a store earning it's credibility thru it's convincing implementation of branding and store design conventions. The store does not commission the production of goods from prisons, but displays in a retail manner a selection of products already in production. The store format enables the debate about a complicated site and means of production to enter the public sphere thru the contemporary form of  urban shopping, a not-uncomplicated site and means of consumption.

City 4

Research & Exhibition Development


This research project explores the potential for exhibition designers to effect greater social change through the design of information exhibitions in venues where they are unexpected.

This project actively exposes the built in incentive for increased prison rates in the for-profit prison system.

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