What Happens When Inmates Design Their Own Prisons?

Shaunacy Ferro (Fast Company) | August 19, 2014

Anthony Pratt prison designInmates in San Francisco’s County Jail No. 5 recently got the chance to contribute their own suggestions for how the physical spaces of incarceration should be designed. At a workshop with architect Deanna VanBuren and restorative justice scholar Barb Toews, 18 attendees, mostly inmates who are currently awaiting trial for violent crimes, created architectural models that represented how they might change the architecture of the justice system, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Restorative justice programs such as these attempt to rehabilitate inmates in order to lower the chances that they’ll re-offend once released from jail. But in America, maximum-security prisons are commonly cold, solitary places that have a dehumanizing effect on the inmates which reside in them. Some of the reasons are pragmatic–long rows of solitary cells make it easier for guards to control a violent population. But if these places are to be the rehabilitating institutions they were originally expected to be, there are some who believe that we should be asking the prisoners themselves what they need to get the most out the process.

In this case, the prisoners discussed their feelings about the system that landed them there, and talked about their environment could be redesigned. Inmates proposed everything from waterfalls, to atriums, to computer rooms. Many of the designs called for the implementation of natural light. And while some of the specific ideas that came from the brainstorm may be a little too progressive for the American prison system, the general sentiment from the inmates could provide valuable input in future designs:

A towering, broad-chested man with full tattoos adorning both arms, Pratt, 29, was among those sketching out new visions: an airy room with a skylight to cure vitamin D deficiencies and a fountain with a cascading waterfall to represent resilience and adaptability. Privacy barriers for the shower and toilet. A healing center with lots of windows and, in the middle, a talking circle with a sun emblazoned in its center.

But this raises a bigger question about what prison is for; does making it a cushy place to live sort of defeat the point? Perhaps, but consider the stats: The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and its prison system is much more focused on punishing criminals than trying to reform them into productive members of society. It keeps 80,000 U.S. prisoners in a form of long-term solitary isolation that the U.N. considers a form of torture. Once released, a huge number of those prisoners end up re-offending.

Read more at: http://www.fastcodesign.com/3034527/what-happens-when-inmates-design-their-own-prisons

Photo credit: Lee Romney / Los Angeles Times

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