New San Diego Women’s Jail “More Country Club Than Gloomy Fortress”


In prison, depressing conditions and a draconian culture can encourage poor behavior, which leads to longer punishments at taxpayers’ expense. For this reason, reports Popular Mechanics, two architecture firms, KMD and HMC, used design principles from colleges and hospitals to build a women’s jail in San Diego that could reduce assault, vandalism, and, eventually, recidivism. “It’s not nice. It’s not like you’re in a luxury hotel,” says Richard Wener, an environmental psychologist at New York University. “But there are colors. There’s furniture. It says, ‘We expect you to treat this place with respect. If you don’t, you won’t be able to stay here.'” The $268 million Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility’s first phase has been open for only a year, and both inmates and staff have already reported positive responses to the design.

The main features: Large windows, because natural light and views of the outdoors reduce stress, say environmental psychology studies. Architects worked with an acoustics expert to reduce noise and echoing in common areas, which can increase stress and confrontations. Living areas in the lowest-security settings look much like a community of two-story homes surrounded by outdoor areas. Inmates have personal space in the form of their own cubicles. The goal is not to make life fun, but to reduce bad behavior, which leads to extended stays and overcrowding. An open booking area is more like a large doctor’s office than the standard tank that prisoners are tossed into. Instead of observing inmates through windows, deputies are stationed inside living units. There are the same number of guards, but they’re in closer proximity. “It’s analogous in some ways to community policing,” says Wener. “It’s the cop on the beat instead of driving by in the car. And the surprising thing for lots of people is that the safety record of officers is as good or better than in traditional jails, even though there are no bars between them and the inmates.”

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