"Design can immediately and practically reduce the number of people in custody"

Yavapai County Justice Center

Architects who want a more equitable prison system in the US should focus on designing spaces that can help reduce mass incarceration, write Lori Coppenrath and Marayca Lopez.

Mass incarceration is the US justice system’s primary problem. The United States is home to 4 per cent of the world’s population, but 16 per cent of its incarcerated population. The disproportion of those two numbers illustrates what the sociologist David Garland was after when he first coined the term for mass incarceration’s precedent, “mass imprisonment”: “a rate of imprisonment and a size of prison population that is markedly above the historical and comparative norm for societies of this type”.

Quite simply, we put too many people in prison. This means that any solution put forward has to take the shape of decarceration. ​​California governor Gavin Newsome’s recent announcement that San Quentin will be transformed into San Quentin Rehabilitation Center and the City of New York’s decision to replace the Rikers Island mega-jail with a “borough-based jail system” foretell much-needed change.

The levels of decarceration we need to see will require changes that are simply beyond the power of architecture

But as a stark report from the Brookings Institution think tank details, “the roots of mass incarceration in the United States lie in policies and practices that result in jail for millions of individuals charged with but not convicted of any crime and lengthy jail or prison sentences for those who are convicted”. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 69 per cent of people in city and county jails are being held pretrial, a number that has nearly quadrupled since the 1980s.

Often, when we talk about the role that design can play in improving the justice system, we focus on simply making correctional facilities look like Norway’s Halden Prison – contemporary, connected to nature, and with interiors more reminiscent of college dorms than dungeons.

Spaces that preserve human dignity, support healing and recovery, and promote a safe and normative living environment are certainly important, but design can play a more foundational role. It can intervene in the “practices” that confine those millions of people who are “not convicted of any crime”.

AIA bans design of execution facilities and solitary confinement spaces

Read:

AIA bans design of execution facilities and solitary confinement spaces

The most effective way to facilitate decarceration is by creating alternatives – off-ramps along the continuum of our justice system that redirect a person to services and resources rather than custody. And because these alternatives require a new type of built environment, the call to architects and designers is clear: we should build those new environments.

There’s no shying away from the fact that the levels of decarceration we need to see will require changes that are simply beyond the power of architecture: changes in how we care for children, how we police, how we write laws, and perhaps most crucially and elusively, how we understand the purpose of our justice system – no longer to punish, but to rehabilitate.

Yet design can immediately and practically reduce the number of people in custody.

Repurposing what we have is the most pragmatic route to decarceration

Consider the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s report that about two in five people who are incarcerated have a history of mental illness. Take also the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s claim that more than a quarter of all homeless people in the US – roughly 143,000 people – “reported being arrested for activities related to homelessness”.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says an “estimated 65 per cent” of people in custody have a substance-use disorder. All this means that substantial decarceration can happen by designing spaces for crisis stabilisation, rehabilitation, mental health care and housing.

While that might be obvious enough, what’s less apparent is that more immediate and practical decarceration occurs via re-planning, re-programming, and re-designing a jurisdiction’s already-existing justice architecture. With costs high and budgets tight, repurposing what we have is the most pragmatic route to decarceration.

Portrait of Michael Ford

Read:

"Stop working on spaces which disproportionately impact African Americans" says architectural designer Michael Ford

One particularly informative example in this regard is the Yavapai County Criminal Justice Center in Prescott, Arizona (pictured). In March 2016, Yavapai County Jail Planning Services commissioned DLR Group and Chinn Planning to conduct a study of its current facilities – a crucial moment in that it occurs before a justice centre is built, when alternatives to custody can be designed into the plan.

It’s those things we can design that keep a person from ever entering custody – which we call deflection, or pre-arrest diversion – that strike us as most impactful.

In this case, part of our work with Yavapai County involved the development of a Deflection Center consisting of 12 non-carceral beds – that is, beds that can be used without being booked into the justice system. This works in tandem with a portion of the building that houses a mental-health screening program and access to social services, both for those in the Deflection Center and those re-entering society.

It’s incumbent on designers to do what we can to create places that heal and transform

Designing to keep people out of custody can be very simple. A major challenge for Yavapai is that its pretrial jail population is housed 45 miles outside of the city – driving up transport costs and leading people to be held longer than necessary, all because of a glaring inefficiency. Co-locating the city’s justice services would significantly reduce the time people are held pre-trial.

So much incarceration occurs not out of maliciousness, but out of a simple lack of alternatives to incarceration. This is why we believe that if a designer is committed to equity in our justice system, the most practical way to live out that commitment is to build those alternative forms of placement – even when doing so requires wading out into the weeds of a county’s carceral system. It’s incumbent on designers to do what we can to create places that heal and transform.

Lori Coppenrath and Marayca Lopez are principals and justice and civic planning leaders at architecture and design firm DLR Group. Coppenrath is also a member of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. Lopez is chair of the American Institute of Architects’ Academy of Architecture for Justice.

The photo is by Matthew Winquest.

Dezeen In Depth
If you enjoy reading Dezeen’s interviews, opinions and features, subscribe to Dezeen In Depth. Sent on the last Friday of each month, this newsletter provides a single place to read about the design and architecture stories behind the headlines.

The post "Design can immediately and practically reduce the number of people in custody" appeared first on Dezeen.