Can Tomorrow’s Prisons Look Like This?

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prison cell

A visting room in a Norwegian prison. Photo courtesy Michele Deitch

Can changing prison architecture and design reduce the trauma caused by mass incarceration?

“The crisis of mass incarceration is architectural as well as moral,” Jeffrey Mansfield, design director for the Mass Design Group’s Restorative Justice Lab, told a conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice last week.

Mansfield led a group of speakers arguing that better and more “humane” design will not only reduce the harm caused by the industrial-style, “warehouse”  facilities built to house the growing incarcerated populations of America during the 1970s and 1980s, but can play a role in cutting recidivism.

Michele Deitch

“We failed to recognize the harm [current prisons] do to individuals,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin.

Deitch, who is involved in an effort to reimagine women’s units in two Texas counties, admitted design changes alone won’t be enough to transform the incarceration culture in America, but it can help “lead to better outcomes” by treating incarcerated individuals like human beings.

Marirosa Lamas, superintendent of the Chester State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, is heading the first pilot project in the country to transform a prison environment.

prison cell

Comparison between US prison cell and Norwegian (right). Photo courtesy Michele Deitch

Modeled on prisons in Scandinavia, the Chester facility  is planning to remodel one housing unit that will house prisoners in single-cell units containing a fridge and TV, and will resemble a sparsely furnished study. Lamas said staffing in the unit will also change from one corrections officer to 125 inmates to three officers per 64 inmates over three shifts.

Marirosa Lamas

Marirosa Lamas

Lamas, the most senior prison warden in Pennsylvania, said she hopes the project will prove that design changes can make a difference to environments that are as unhealthy for corrections officers as they are to inmates.

“We’re failing miserably,” she said. “We can go nowhere but up.”

Deitch conceded that overhauling the nation’s prisons would be a costly project, but “the payoffs are higher as well.”

Jeffrey Mansfield

Jeffrey Mansfield

According to Mansfield, whose Massachusetts firm has been studying prison environments in South Carolina and developing alternative design models, said studies in the 1970s have shown that even incremental design changes have reduced violence inside prisons.

“Architecture is a verb as well as a noun,” he argued. “It can reduce tensions.”

The panelists spoke at the 15th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America

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