The Case for Humane Prisons

Construction of the amphitheater, Iowa Correctional Institution for Women / Iowa State University News Service

Long before anyone defined the field of environmental psychology, prisons were testing grounds for theories about how the design of the built environment could exert a physical and moral influence on people. In 19th-century England, the “Panopticon” prison design proposed a radial organization of brightly-lit and highly-visible cells around a dark central watch tower, to instill in prisoners the moral pressure and paranoia of constant social surveillance. In 21st-century Norway, prison buildings are separated by rolling hills and forests to promote frequent interaction with nature, and guards’ break rooms are cramped and uncomfortable to encourage them to spend their social time with inmates.

The distance between those approaches speaks to the struggle of societies to define the role of prisons as places for punishment or reform, for repentance or rehabilitation. It’s in this arena — fraught with moral undertones and with concerns about safety, accountability, justice, and injustice — that landscape architect Julie Stevens, ASLA, practices.

Stevens, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, has overseen three design-build projects at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, a medium-security prison in the small city of Mitchellville. Her approach to prison design is the same as for any community design: build relationships and recognize the humanity of the whole community, while honoring the voices of the most vulnerable — in this case the inmates, or “the women,” as Stevens referred to them most often during a lecture last week at North Carolina State University’s College of Design.

Stevens became involved at the women’s prison in 2011, when administrators were overseeing a $68 million expansion project that included no funding for design of the landscape. “The department of corrections wanted us to help them figure out where to put a few trees and shrubs,” Stevens said. “The prison was a lot of concrete, a lot of lawn, and essentially what happened is that a crew of about 12 women go out and start on one end of the prison with a cheap lawn mower and start mowing. And they push line after line after line, and when they get done, they start all over again.”

“We looked at this, and we thought, ‘We can do a lot better. We can make spaces more productive, more therapeutic.’”

The first design-build project was a limestone amphitheater flanked by two outdoor classrooms, a lawn mound, an aspen grove, and a constructed native prairie (see image above). Iowa State landscape architecture students designed the one-acre space with help from the women, and a team of students and inmates built the whole thing in one summer, using tons of donated gravel and limestone.

ASLA 2015 Student Community Service Award of Excellence, Landscapes of Justice. Students and inmates plant a tree, Iowa Correctional Institution for Women / Julie Stevens

During that first summer of construction, Stevens and her students noticed that prison staff tended to congregate at their cars after work, decompressing in the hot parking lot before driving home to their families. The next design-build project became a decompression deck for prison staff. When that was done, Stevens and her team created a healing garden to serve prisoners in the mental health unit. Now she’s building support for a design to serve the women and their children.

The projects are driven by the relationships Stevens has cultivated with prison administration, staff, and inmates. The designs accommodate administrators’ requests by promoting calm, creating functional spaces, and addressing security concerns — through open sight lines, for example, and the use of epoxy to keep limestone pieces fixed in place and unusable as weapons. The designs serve the women as daily spaces to gather and, during design and construction, as opportunities to build employable skills. But the effects are also more subtle.

“Some of these women have come from some pretty unthinkable situations, years of abuse. But when we’re in the garden and we’re working together, we have a single vision, we’re working toward a common goal, and we all get to be equal,” Stevens said. “Gardens are inclusive.”

The designs at the prison are informed by research on environmental preference and attention restoration theories, and Stevens has assembled a team of researchers to help capture the impact of the projects. They’re tracking protective factors, which are thought to reduce recidivism and which include demonstrations of teamwork and problem-solving. They’re also using surveys to keep track of the gardens’ effects on prisoners. Results so far suggest that being in the landscape makes the women feel calmer, more optimistic, and in greater control of their lives.

ASLA 2015 Student Community Service Award of Excellence, Landscapes of Justice. Prisoners experience the landscape, Iowa Correctional Institution for Women / Julie Stevens

For Stevens, who is a co-founder of the ASLA’s Environmental Justice professional practice network (PPN), those metrics are important. They start to illustrate the impact of the landscape in people’s lives, and they help make the case for corrections departments everywhere to invest in humane design.

But the root of her work at the prison, and in environmental justice generally, is deeper. It’s a belief — common to the history of thought on prison design — that the measure of a society lies in the treatment of its most vulnerable populations, that good design is important and should not be reserved for those with a voice. Stevens identified the solution at the end of her lecture: design and action driven by love.

“We have a lot of work to do. It’s really good work, and it’s really important work,” Stevens said. “We have to love and care for other people.”

This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

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