What Happens When Inmates Design Their Own Prisons?

A restorative justice workshop in San Francisco allowed inmates to reimagine the design of their physical environment.

What Happens When Inmates Design Their Own Prisons?
[Flickr user Henry Hagnäs]

Inmates in San Francisco’s County Jail No. 5 recently got the chance to contribute their own suggestions for how the physical spaces of incarceration should be designed. At a workshop with architect Deanna VanBuren and restorative justice scholar Barb Toews, 18 attendees, mostly inmates who are currently awaiting trial for violent crimes, created architectural models that represented how they might change the architecture of the justice system, the Los Angeles Times reports.


Restorative justice programs such as these attempt to rehabilitate inmates in order to lower the chances that they’ll re-offend once released from jail. But in America, maximum-security prisons are commonly cold, solitary places that have a dehumanizing effect on the inmates which reside in them. Some of the reasons are pragmatic–long rows of solitary cells make it easier for guards to control a violent population. But if these places are to be the rehabilitating institutions they were originally expected to be, there are some who believe that we should be asking the prisoners themselves what they need to get the most out the process.

In this case, the prisoners discussed their feelings about the system that landed them there, and talked about their environment could be redesigned. Inmates proposed everything from waterfalls, to atriums, to computer rooms. Many of the designs called for the implementation of natural light. And while some of the specific ideas that came from the brainstorm may be a little too progressive for the American prison system, the general sentiment from the inmates could provide valuable input in future designs:

A towering, broad-chested man with full tattoos adorning both arms, Pratt, 29, was among those sketching out new visions: 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.

But this raises a bigger question about what prison is for; does making it a cushy place to live sort of defeat the point? Perhaps, but consider the stats: The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and its prison system is much more focused on punishing criminals than trying to reform them into productive members of society. It keeps 80,000 U.S. prisoners in a form of long-term solitary isolation that the U.N. considers a form of torture. Once released, a huge number of those prisoners end up re-offending.

Other countries, notably Scandinavian nations, approach incarceration more as a method of rehabilitation. In Norway’s high-security Halden Prison, it’s baked into the physical environment of the facility: With big windows and security walls obscured by trees, it’s made to look as much like the outside world as possible. Notably, the country has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world.

How much influence this program has remains to be seen, but the mere act of asking prisoners what they want out of the space where they’re to live out years of their lives is pretty radical for California, a state that by some counts is home to two of the country’s worst prisons (the supermax state facility at Pelican Bay and the L.A. County Jail).

Right now, there are some architects who refuse to take part in prison design at all, because of the ethical quandaries it represents. But perhaps dialogues like the ones going on in San Francisco jails can spark further discussions about what prisoners really need out of these spaces, and in turn, inspire more architects to reconsider how prisons are designed.


“The goal is to empower those inside the institutions and prod architects to actually talk to the people they are designing for,” VanBuren told the L.A. Times. “That’s how an architect would practice in any other setting.”

Read more from the Los Angeles Times.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.