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April 30, 2018

"Is There Such a Thing as 'Good' Prison Design?"

HMC%20Architects%20Las%20Colinas%202The question in the title of this post got me to thinking about the famous Panopticon building conceived by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham and also the historic debates over the Pennsylvania system and the Auburn system of prison design in the early Nineteenth Century.  But the title of this post references modern discussions, as it is from this new Architectural Digest article with this subheadline: "Architects working toward creating more livable prisons come up against challenges of epic — but not insurmountable — proportions."  Here are excerpts from a piece worth reading in full:

Some would argue that America’s prison problem is very much a design problem.  Facilities are usually built like fortresses — monoliths in rural locations ringed with razor wire and high walls. Interiors are detailed to withstand tremendous abuse, made with hard materials like concrete, linoleum, steel, and concrete block which mercilessly reflect the endless noise inside prisons, raising stress levels of both inmates and those who work with them.  There’s generally either too much or too little light — most of it fluorescent, and switched on 24/7 — which scrambles everyone’s circadian rhythms.  But due to security and cost concerns, access to natural light is a luxury.  Windows are expensive, and their size and location often determine a facility’s weakest security points. The typical interior color palette, meanwhile, is a study in sensory deprivation—just a few shades of monotonous, soul-crushing beige.

In fact, it just took one night inside a U.S. jail to move Frank Gehry to run a Spring 2017 semester course at Yale exploring the design of prison facilities.  He encouraged his students to rethink incarceration as an opportunity for rehabilitation rather than punishment and took them to Northern Europe and Scandinavia, where prisons look and perform more like college campuses than fortresses....

Perhaps the finest example of compassionate American prison design is the recently completed Las Colinas Women’s Detention and Reentry Facility, commissioned by the County of San Diego, designed by KMD/HMC Architects.  The complex sits on a 45-acre campus and features residentially scaled buildings clustered around exterior courtyards.  Research shows that isolation breeds violence and anger; the more normalized environment is meant to encourage socialization and to “minimize physical and psychological barriers” between inmates and staff.  In fact, the facility looks a lot like the college campuses Gehry’s students envisioned: Inside, the floors are a warm brown and sometimes playfully patterned; translucent green accent walls break down the scale of the cafeteria; and materials include not only concrete but also ashlar stone, cork, and wood.  Due to the facility’s podular layout, all public spaces feature large windows and an abundance of natural light.

Meanwhile, more and more designers are holding their peers accountable — at the very least for participating in the design of cells made for solitary confinement.  As Raphael Sperry, the president of Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), puts it, “You can’t fix mass incarceration by putting prisoners in nicer cages.”  He unsuccessfully lobbied the AIA to establish a rule banning members from creating supermax prisons.  Sperry argues that the answer to the country’s prison problem is through justice reform — reconsidering the laws that send so many people to prison in the first place, and providing alternative sentences that focus on rehabilitation and responsibility rather than incarceration.  While that pursuit may be beyond the scope of the average designer, large architecture firms working in this space have shown that expert voices like theirs can at least start to shape how clients view the task of jailing human beings. In the end, good design is just the beginning.

April 30, 2018 at 02:55 PM | Permalink

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