Can New Prison Design Help America’s Mass Incarceration Problem?


Architecture and design play a pivotal role in U.S. criminal justice reform. As momentum builds to end mass incarceration, some cities and architecture firms believe that building “more humane” prisons and jails will help solve key parts of the nation’s incarceration problem. Cities such as San Diego; San Mateo, California; Birmingham, Alabama; Denver; Salt Lake City; and Nashville are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into building new correctional facilities boasting sunlight, air, greenery, and more programming space.

Earlier this year in New Orleans, a federal judge ruled that new construction on a city jail will resume, despite public outcry that the new facility will only add more prisoners and that many prisoners are mentally ill and should be treated in the community, not in jail.

Indeed, justice design, the industry segment dedicated to correctional facilities, courthouses, and police stations, has evolved since Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century panopticon. Some architects see this is as major progress. Those in favor of sleek correctional facilities tout new infrastructure as an antidote to mass incarceration, positioning fresh design as a way to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce recidivism. But some see it as anathema, an expensive and shallow solution to the justice system’s deep-rooted harms.

Inside of the San Mateo Correctional Facility, which was completed in 2016.

The country’s largest and most costly reform effort is happening in New York City. The landmark city’s $8.16 billion plan promises to close its largest, most notorious jail, Rikers Island, by 2028 and replace it with new, borough-based jails in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Despite protests over the new jails, the city announced the shortlist of design-build firms for the new Manhattan jail in October, signaling the Borough-Based Jails program will forge ahead.

“One of the main things steering this plan is that environment drives behavior,” says Jamie Torres Springer, first deputy commissioner of New York City’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC), the department heading the program. “Design is one of the ways that we’ll achieve our criminal justice goals; we don’t have to further punish through the conditions of the facilities.”

After studying the best practices of some of Europe’s most advanced jails and prisons, the DDC issued requirements for the new jail designs. Each of New York City’s four new jails must allow for movement, provide light, greenery, security, and spaces for rehabilitation, education, and visitation.

Since the ’80s, architect Frank Greene has dedicated his career to justice architecture. Greene says he’s observed a massive change in justice design over the last 10 years and believes design has the power to transform people’s lives. “We’re designing new facilities to help people return to their communities with the skills they need to succeed,” explains Greene.

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