A women’s Refuge Mobile Trailer developed in Oakland, California. (Courtesy of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces)

Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS) is the only architectural firm committed to ending mass incarceration, and their work is the focus of a new virtual exhibit. Hosted by the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, Artifacts of Decarceration highlights DJDS projects and developments to create spaces designed for restorative justice practice, the promotion of successful reentry into society, and deep community building.

Artifacts of Decarceration allows visitors to not just learn about existing DJDS projects and the methods by which the firm co-creates them with the communities those projects serve, but also enter into some of those structures to get a sense of how they look and feel. The exhibit features a peacemaking room furnished with chairs, materials, and information on how restorative justice circles can be conducted. A separate room houses a mockup of the exhibit’s pop-up villages, an outdoor space providing social programs, health and wellness services, and opportunities for local micro entrepreneurs. There are also examples of how DJDS uses interactive design features to work toward their goals of healthy expression and transforming relationships. Suspended in the middle of the exhibit is a “hit and hug” bag—a take on a traditional punching bag that can be either hit in order to release pain or aggression, or hugged when in need of support and relief. To add to the sensory experience, the bag itself is lined with lavender essence, releasing the stress relieving aroma as users engage with it. 

DJDS is the realization of founder Deanna Van Buren’s vision that reimagining where justice can take place by creating infrastructure that doesn’t ignite fear and violence and instead encourages repairs to interpersonal harm and the trauma of incarceration itself. Growing up in Jim Crow rural Virginia, Van Buren’s father taught her that the local courthouse, one of the largest and most expensive structures in the county, was to be avoided at all cost. That lesson reflected an association of spaces built for authority and dispensing justice with feelings of fear and instability that rings too true for people of color, particularly Black people. Van Buren took to design early on, creating fortresses at home as personal sanctuaries. After years of traveling internationally as an architect designing for the “global 1%,” Van Buren was looking for a way to use her skills and passion to create socially responsive infrastructure in the U.S. when she attended a restorative justice during a talk by activists Angela and Fania Davis on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2007. 

“The hair on my arms stood up,” Van Buren said at a talk presented by the National Building Museum last month. “I said, ‘Oh this is it. This is something I could get behind.””

Restorative justice advocates for a system of criminal justice that isn’t focused on crime and punishment. Instead, it centers rehabilitation for offenders and victim and community reconciliation. These principles are reflected in the way Van Buren organizes DJDS projects around three goals: restorative reentry, repurposing and reimagining existing carceral facilities, and restorative reinvestment in communities. This first goal is the basis for the first room of the exhibit, which replicates the environment of DJDS’s Mobile Refuge Trailers. Studies have shown that the first 72 hours post-release are the most crucial in establishing a successful transition back into society, so immediate access to safety and shelter is vital for previously incarcerated people. DJDS worked with the California based nonprofit BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency) to develop short-term housing for at least 40 men and women returning from incarceration, resulting in the creation of the Mobile Refuge Trailers. The transitional housing is operated in connection with local institutions and organizations, and provides mental health counseling, trauma-informed education, and job training. 

Access to these services in environments expressly designed to elicit feelings of calm, support, and security are especially needed by recently released incarcerated women, who comprise a growing number of the incarcerated population in the U.S. and have uniquely different experiences from men post-release. In a 2008 study by the Urban Institute, women released from incarceration cited their primary needs as housing, job opportunities, services to help them deal with the trauma of both incarceration and from earlier abuse, and reuniting with their children. 

Projects like the Women’s Mobile Refuge Trailers, designed in collaboration with 60 women incarcerated at San Francisco’s County Jail #2, help fill what researchers have identified as a profound gap in facilities’ “release planning,” or the crucial process of helping those who were recently incarcerated transition back into free society. As detailed by The Urban Institute, prison officials often don’t see themselves as responsible for someone’s welfare once they aren’t in custody and post-release supervision agencies like probation and parole often don’t start providing services until a recently released individual arrives in their office. This makes the immediate post-release period—which lasts anywhere from a few minutes to several hours and frequently occurs in the middle of the night-—extremely precarious and dangerous. This is especially a concern for women, who aren’t given any money or transportation options. While some departments of corrections provide fare for public transportation, access to buses and trains can be difficult when facilities are in remote areas and women are released outside of public transportation operation hours.

By designing their projects in collaboration with the residents who will be using them, DJDS spaces are created with the unique needs of each specific community in mind. In addition to being hyper local, Van Buren considered the Mobile Refuge Trailers project to be “hyper urgent.” They provide for the immediate needs of released women, where they can get clean and refreshed in a safe and comforting environment, as well as meet with a case worker, eat a meal, and “get on their feet before heading out.” These may seem like insignificant details, but for women and other people who’ve endured the trauma of incarceration and the criminal justice system, environments and services that center their needs and are specifically designed to soften the shock of release and provide immediate support can make a significant difference in a successful reentry into society.

In discussing DJDS’s work and the purpose of the exhibit, Van Buren highlighted the fact that everyone holds trauma to varying degrees, so the spaces we’re in should help in processing that trauma, not compound it. 

“If trauma is somatic, the built environment is crucial,” Van Buren said.

Through the Mobile Refuge Trailer and other pieces within Artifacts of Decarceration, DJDS asks visitors to consider what can be possible when we abandon the idea that justice can only be provided in existing carceral institutions. In fact, it challenges us to ask whether real justice has ever been found in those spaces at all. 

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.