A Wild Prison Tower Designed To Slash Recidivism

Granted, it looks scary. But there’s a humane motivation behind that oddball shape.

With more than 2 million people behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. It also faces tremendous challenges rehabilitating prisoners. Take New Jersey, where approximately two-thirds of the 14,000 inmates released annually return to prison after five years. This is an obvious social, political, and economic problem (each inmate costs the state about $48,000 a year). It’s also, perhaps less obviously, a design problem.


So suggests Andreas Tjeldflaat and Greg Knobloch, architecture masters students at the University of Pennsylvania. The pair has developed a proposal for a sky-scraping urban prison that they think could help lower recidivism rates by encouraging inmates to play an active role in their own rehabilitation.

499.SUMMIT would be composed of three violently geometric arches that’d rise, and overlap, in the heart of Jersey City. First, a word on why they selected Jersey City: In part, that was the assignment (for a course at Penn taught by HWKN’s Matthias Hollwich). But they also believe that a prime urban location could set the backdrop for a more humane prison experience. “Compared to the typically isolated sites chosen for prisons, this location would have several advantages: It would be close to family, friends, work opportunities, services and professionals needed and most of all; close to society, or rather, feeling as being a part of society,” Tjeldflaat tells Co.Design in an email. “This could make the transition back into society softer.”

As for the design: It doesn’t make for the world’s most welcoming neighbor. My editor thinks the place looks like Arkham Asylum 2.0. I think it looks like something Rem Koolhaas threw together in a bad mood. Either way you cut it, you’d be hard-pressed to find a neighborhood willing to plunk down such an mean-looking tower–one housing a jail no less–alongside local cafes and residences. (Then again, people keep building Thom Mayne’s stuff, so what do we know?)

The logic of 499.SUMMIT is this: Tjeldflaat and Knobloch see arches as a metaphor for the steps of the ideal rehabilitation process–the way they climb uphill (initial incarceration), then level off (transformation into an upstanding citizen), then return to the street (reintegration).

So in their vision, each arch would nurture those three rehab phases, and prisoners’ position in the building would be determined by their behavioral progress. An inmate might start at the bottom of an arch, in a high-security cell. If he behaves, he climbs up to house arrest in the arch’s bridge. Then when he’s ready to return to society, he descends to a halfway house, just a few floors above street level. Additionally, the tower would include private residences and public venues. “We believe there is innovation in how an inmate must graduate through the system, and thereby having to take an active role in his/her advancement,” Tjeldflaat says. “When moving through the phase, one is exposed to an increasing degrees of social interaction and freedom, from single prison cells to communal environments, work release and halfway housing. By also having private residential units and public spaces in the building this could have a normalizing effect on the prison, and increase the chances of reintegration to society.”

Tjeldflaat and Knobloch don’t have any plans to actually build 499.SUMMIT. “It is more of a provocation of the prison model,” Tjeldflaat says. Still, it raises some interesting questions about what prisons could do, from a design angle, to inch us closer toward a day when we don’t need to design new prisons at all.


[Images courtesy of Andreas Tjeldflaat]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.