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Architects Question Whether Building “More Humane” Prisons is Possible

by Daniel A. Rosen

Does more fresh air, sunlight, and space for rehabilitative programs mean a prison or jail is more humane? That’s the question many architects are struggling with as expensive new facilities are built around the country.

Architecture and design may be able to play a key role in criminal justice reform efforts, according to some proponents. Cities and the architecture firms they work with to build more humane prisons believe they’ll help solve key challenges with incarceration. In Denver and Nashville, Birmingham and San Diego, hundreds of millions of tax dollars are being invested in new lockups featuring greenery, sunlight, and space for programming.

The “justice design” sector is dedicated to building new courthouses, police stations, and jails and prisons. New infrastructure favoring sleek design is touted as an antidote to mass incarceration. But opponents see proposed new buildings as expensive band-aids to the serious problems with mass incarceration.

New York City’s $8 billion plan to replace the Rikers Island prison complex is the most glaring example of the current debate. The plan calls for closing Rikers by 2028 and instead opening four new jails in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens to replace it. Jamie Torres-Springer, deputy commissioner of the city department helming the Borough-Based Jails program said that “Design is one of the ways we’ll achieve our criminal justice goals; we don’t have to further punish through the conditions of the facilities.”

New York city officials studied best practices in European jails before issuing construction requirements. They determined that each of the four new jails must make provisions for light, greenery and rehabilitation programs - in addition to allowing for movement, security, and visitation.

Despite the best intentions of officials overseeing new jail construction, some activists reject the notion of humane jails.

“Most incarceration is unjust,” says San Francisco-based architect Raphael Sperry. “Racially, it’s totally disproportionate.”

In 2003, Sperry launched the Prison Design Boycott for Alternatives to Incarceration. The project petitioned the main trade association of architects to end participation in facilities’ design.

“We shouldn’t be designing prisons and jails. We need to be doing community reinvestment and designing jail alternatives,” Sperry said. “I think the [Borough-Based Jails program] is a mistake and a huge waste of money. New York is going to regret it.”

In October 2020, the New York chapter of the nationwide architect’s trade association asked architects to stop designing jails and prisons until the justice system applies the law “without racial bias.” Chris Perrodin, a local architect, says that “changing the Department of Corrections’ culture has to be the mission statement” at the new jails.

Gregory Cook, a justice architect at the firm HDR, agrees: “It’s about design, but it’s really about how they’re being operated,” he noted.

Beyond New York, in early 2021 a federal judge in New Orleans ruled that public outcry over the need for a new jail couldn’t stop construction. Opponents wanted to reduce the incarcerated population and cut down the number of mentally ill behind bars instead.

Architect Frank Green, who’s dedicated his career to justice architecture, says he’s observed change over the past decade, and still believes the work can transform lives. “We’re designing new facilities to help people return to their communities with the skills they need to succeed,” he says.

Given that United States has built over a thousand new prisons and hundreds of new jails in the past 30 years, increased prison and jail capacity has resulted in more prisoners being caged. In years past, prison officials demanded and paid for, prisons designed to reduce human contact, any environmental stimulation and such with the express purpose of inflicting mental torture on prisons and all of those prisons are still being used and operated today. Some might say the push to the new design is simply a desire to keep building more prisons and jails, at greater cost, to keep the incarceration machine going rather than by reducing prison and jail populations.


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