Designing accountability and transformation

Imagine you had to sit down and deal with a serious conflict with a family member or face a friend hurt by something you said or did. The conversation between the two of you is going to be difficult. Now, picture a room or space in which you would prefer to have that interaction. What would that space look, feel and smell like? How might that space influence how you would feel, think and act, both during and after the conversation? People rarely notice, let alone consciously think about, the impact of spatial design—be it buildings, rooms or outdoor spaces—on their physical, mental and emotional well-being. Yet architecture and design matter, including when considering questions of justice and mass incarceration. How can we design spaces that foster both accountability and transformation?

Justice architecture and design serve as visual representations of justice theories. For example, the judge sitting on a raised dais in the courtroom is symbolic of the judge’s power and expertise. Defense and prosecution sitting side-by-side, not facing each other, but rather facing the judge, hints at the competitive nature of the justice process. Crime victims observe judicial proceedings from the back of the courtroom, behind a barrier, physically sidelined in a way that parallels the exclusion of their experiences and needs from the justice process.

Mass incarceration within better designed correctional facilities is still mass incarceration. We are challenged to start from scratch, inquire about our desired justice philosophy goals, and design new spaces with those goals, and design research, in mind


The architecture and design of correctional facilities also communicate. Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, built in the early eighteenth century by prison reformers, offers an early example of the link between design and justice theory. The single-person cell with a low door and a solitary ceiling window that opened toward the heavens was designed to isolate and humble the prisoner to facilitate penitence. Today, more modern prison designs have sought to move beyond cellblock prison models—long units that house hundreds of prisoners in multiple tiers of cells, common areas with heavy furniture bolted to the floor and building material that consists of little more than cement, steel and cinder block—to the creation of more home-like settings with comfortable and moveable furniture, pleasant colors and fewer prisoners. While the cellblock model communicates a punitive and marginalizing message through its warehouse-like architecture, more modern prison designs aim to normalize the prison environment, making it more conducive to rehabilitating prisoners and facilitating their reentry into society.

Architecture and design impact our well-being, including our social, mental and emotional health. Prisons are no exceptions. Access to small and flexible spaces, for example, facilitate improved communication and social support in times of crisis. Privacy makes it possible for people to deal with social harms, reflect on their lives and re-energize after periods of intensity. Considerable research shows that interaction with nature, even just through a window view, can improve physical health and mood and reduce depression and anxiety. Research conducted specifically in the correctional environment shows similar outcomes for incarcerated individuals, especially as it relates to interaction with nature through horticultural and gardening programs. My own research with incarcerated women found that they view nature as a critical design feature of spaces in which they can meet personal and rehabilitative goals. The women also desired homelike spaces with a variety of rooms and spaces (both indoor and outdoor) for socializing as well as privacy.

The impact of facility design on correctional employees has also gotten recent attention, including from the National Institute of Justice. Correctional work is stressful and dangerous. Research finds that many correctional and security officers experience compromised mental health in the form of depression, anxiety, trauma symptomology, substance abuse and suicide. Facility design has the potential to exacerbate these outcomes for the way design can increase risk of assault and limit privacy and quiet. Research suggests that correctional staff of all kinds desire areas in which to decompress, especially outdoor spaces with trees, water and flowers. These types of spaces have a good chance of decreasing stress, given evidence that views of a simple nature mural reduce heart rates and stress among correctional intake staff.

Private, homelike and nature-based are not words typically used to describe correctional facilities. Yet we have reason to believe that spaces with such design characteristics may assist in a process of accountability that grows out of reflection, transformation of previous victimization and improved mental health. We would do well to consider how to renovate and re-envision the design of correctional spaces to better serve justice goals. We cannot, however, simply make correctional facilities more beautiful and salutogenic while simultaneously retaining the underlying message of punishment for the sake of punishment. Designing for accountability, transformation and humanization requires more than just making the cellblock feel more homelike or sitting in gardens within the confines of a barbed wire fence. Mass incarceration within better designed correctional facilities is still mass incarceration. We are challenged to start from scratch, examine our desired justice philosophy goals and design new spaces with those goals in mind. A society focused on the rehabilitation of persons who commit crimes would likely not design prisons at all, even for those times when some temporary separation from community may be warranted.

Furthermore, addressing the crisis of mass incarceration will entail confronting the dehumanizing impact of architecture and design at the street level. So-called “million dollar blocks”—i.e., city blocks in which US$1 million is spent annually incarcerating its citizens—are typically characterized by brown fields, vacant lots and industrial sites, all void of green space. Indeed, the design of incarceration, marginalization and dehumanization begins at home.

This article began with an invitation to consider a space in which you could deal with a serious conflict or face someone you had hurt. It is probably safe to assume you did not envision anything punitive in design, let alone anything close to a correctional facility. What can we learn from your space about how to design justice spaces in which those who criminally offend can take steps toward accountability and experience transformation?

Barb Toews is an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Tacoma. She is the author of The Little Book of Restorative Justice for People in Prison.

Learn more

 Toews, Barb. The Little Book of Restorative Justice for People in Prison. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2006.

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