When you think about the long hallways and small cells of prison, it’s impossible to even comprehend what it’s like to live locked up day after day. For the incarcerated, however, it’s reality.
But does it have to be?
That’s just what San Francisco’s County Jail No. 5 has been exploring. Recently, the prison recently held a workshop where inmates designed their own prisons.
Run by architect Deanna VanBuren and restorative justice scholar Barb Toews, 18 prisoners, many of whom are awaiting trial for violent crimes, participated in it.
To begin, inmates talked about their feelings concerning the justice system and how the prison system should be redesigned in order for them to get the most of out of it. Afterwards, the prisoners had the opportunity to create their own architectural models of their ideal prison design.
So, what do prisoners want? Interestingly, many added waterfalls, atriums and computer rooms. While some of the suggestions may seem a little too extensive, others are just basic human needs — like natural light and privacy barriers for the showers and toilets.
Much insight into the minds and needs of prisoners can be gained from this workshop, particularly the design of broad-chested, tattooed, 29-year old Pratt. His design features “an airy room with a skylight to cure vitamin D deficiencies and a fountain with a cascading waterfall to represent resilience and adaptability. Privacy barriers for the shower and toilet. A healing center with lots of windows and, in the middle, a talking circle with a sun emblazoned in its center.”
And while it may be a little too progressive for American prisons, it’s not that unreasonable for other countries. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world — emphasizing punishment instead of rehabilitation. It also keeps 80,000 prisoners in long-term solitary isolation, which is considered a form of torture by the United Nations. And despite this country’s tough treatment of prisoners, the country has a high rate of recidivism.
Take a trip across the globe, however, and it’s a different story. The Scandinavian countries, in particular, take a radically different approach to jailing, focusing on rehabilitation instead of punishment. Take Norway’s Halden Prison, for example. Although it’s a high-security prison, there are huge windows instead of concrete walls and iron bars. Further, the security walls surrounding the building are barely visible thanks to the trees that line the property. Perhaps surprising, Norway also boasts one of the lowest recidivism rates.
With all of this information, it seems that maybe our justice system is actually the one that needs reform. Although it remains to be seen if the workshop’s conclusions will have any bearing on the future of prisons, it’s a positive step in the right direction.
“The goal is to empower those inside the institutions and prod architects to actually talk to the people they are designing for,” VanBuren tells the L.A. Times. “That’s how an architect would practice in any other setting.”
If that’s the case, maybe one day the cold iron bars and privacy-lacking bathrooms will be replaced by a cascading waterfall — or at the very least, a few more windows.
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