A New Way to Design and Build Prisons

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Raphael Sperry, founder of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) has the right idea about how to transform prisons and the people who reside in them.

Designing prisons is fast becoming a hot topic in the world of architecture. Sperry has a specific interest in designing holding facilities that promote restoration rather than destruction. If Sperry could have it his way the American Institute of Architects (AIA) would no longer be permitted to design solitary confinement units and execution chambers.  

Deanna Van Buren, principle of FOURM Design Studio and a member of ADPSR is a passionate advocate of restorative justice, a rehabilitative approach to the justice system that has been proven to lower the recidivism rate.

Glen Santayana, a student aHarvard’s Graduate School of Design, invented and designed as a thesis project, PriSchool, a far-reaching innovative idea — a school of criminology inside a prison in collaboration with the local community.

As farfetched as it may seem…. these three cutting-edge innovators have theories that collectively have the potential to alter the future of prison rehabilitation.

Santayana explains in his thesis the reason for the need of the unique plan – America’s overwhelming prison population. The largest contributor of the surmounting problem has been infusing since the 70s when the “war on drugs” began in the U.S. The prison population has horrendously increased by 500%; and 92% of the people locked-up are doing exorbitant time for non-violent charges. Evidence shows prisons are not effectively rehabilitating those within their walls, with a 67% recidivism rate within 3 years after release.

PriSchool is a hybrid program consisting of prison incarceration and education. The building is located in the neighborhood of Brooklyn referred to as the “million dollar block” because most of its residents are incarcerated—costing the state an astonishing million dollars a year.

The purpose of the school is to help non-violent offenders who got caught-up in the system stay out of prison. Prischools’s distinctive approach is prisoners and students working together to reevaluate the prison’s goals and create an environment of rehabilitation that promotes a successful reentry to society.

The objective of the prisoner/student collaboration plan is for inmates to offer their “street smarts” to the more “intellectual” types. Prisoners provide students with a sense of what it is like to be locked-up and students educate prisoners about the reality of the justice system. The ultimate goal is to endorse a feeling of dignity and empowerment that will lower chances of reoffending.

The architectural strategy aligns with the program’s goal. The facility is divided into four buildings which corresponds with the plan. From East to West, paralleling with each amenity, the school of criminology, the actual prison, a ‘pre-release’ building, and concluding with a community center. The planting of each structure is well-thought-out—accommodating the needs of both the students and the prisoners.

Each of these buildings is precisely placed and formed to create a path to education and success. The design of the building exposes how each structure is linked to the next. Bridges lead the prisoners and students to each component of their journey. The structures respectively have a purpose and represent each passage towards education and rehabilitation.

Inside the pre-release building, inmates preparing for the real world learn new skills they can offer to employers.

The community center is the last part of the journey—yet an important part of the progression because this is the end of the road where all of the hard work pays-off. The end phase is conjectured as a reconciliation to the broader community to help neighbors understand how a prison can be a viable part of the community.   

Santayana’s model is a profound and deeply-examined proposal which views the current US prison system from a completely different angle. His thesis could be the drastic measure it is going to take to resolve a desperate problem.

Image courtesy super-architects.com

Image courtesy super-architects.com

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