Brian Nelson, an ex-con, believes Illinois’ closed Tamms prison was “designed to mentally destroy a person.” He blames the architecture for fellow inmates in solitary confinement cutting themselves. “To me, the cell was so, so depressing,” said Nelson, 50, of Chicago. “It was battleship gray. The whole cell. Solid concrete. I could taste the powder from the concrete because it was pre-made. This is where you lived.” Yesterday, he had a receptive audience at the Academy of Architecture for Justice conference in St. Louis, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The facility Nelson described was what many participants want to move away from, because nearly all inmates will end up back in the community.
Panelists discussed the best ways to design facilities to meet changing societal needs, particularly the boom in prisoners and detainees with mental illness after the closing of many state mental asylums. Panelists described how hospital design is gradually being integrated into prisons and jails. “The institutions of last resort are now detention and corrections,” said Robert Schwartz of HOK, a St. Louis-based architecture firm, who helped coordinate the three-day conference. Keynote speaker Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said major reforms are needed to the prison system. “If we can't be more creative then we ought to give up,” he said.