color photograph of two Black people's hands reaching towards the center of the frame. one holds a small drought-resistant plant out to the other against the backdrop of a prison fence with spiraling barbed wire across the top
VACAVILLE, CA - OCTOBER 19: A California State Prison Solano inmate reaches for a plant while installing a drought-tolerant garden in the prison yard on Oct. 19, 2015, in Vacaville, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In 1829, when Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary opened, it was a departure from American prisons and jails of the time. Undergirded by Quaker ideals about the power of solitude and silence in personal reflection, the penitentiary was intended to be more humane and was designed in a way that would promote penitence. Utilizing the structure of the panopticon, a design theorized in the 1700s by Jeremy Bentham to monitor the most prisoners with the fewest guards, the penitentiary featured a central guard tower surrounded by long outstretched corridors of cell blocks. 

Such infrastructure ensured the potential of constant surveillance and facilitated the penitentiary’s goal of creating spaces for complete isolation. Incarcerated people inside worked and lived alone and received meals through a slot in their cell door, and the fear of being surveilled at any given time engendered self-policing behavior. Though it is widely understood now that such isolation is extremely detrimental to the human psyche and deeply inhumane, its initial use is a key example of how design considerations determine the lived realities of those who occupy spaces and—in the context of prison—serve as physical manifestations of societal ideas about how to respond to crime. 

As articulated by Anne Petersen in an essay for the Design Museum, “We like to think of design research, design thinking, and our resulting design and code as objective, or at least value neutral. It is not. Because we are not. We bring our biases, our privilege, our training that has taught us to believe that we know best.” 

“Intentional design” takes stock of these biases and the design community’s power to either entrench them or craft new spaces devoid of such inequities. This includes rethinking how urban designers shape city streets and whether they do so with accessibility in mind. It makes us consider why the architecture of public schools in low-income, historically redlined, or predominantly BIPOC neighborhoods mimics carceral infrastructure while other school designs do not. In the context of existing carceral facilities, intentional design is both a call to action and a deeper philosophical question: does brainstorming around new prison design represent a reform that ensures the system’s longevity? If so, what role does the design community play in abolition? 

Historically, the design of American prisons has served as a reflection of society’s prevailing ideas about criminality and the popularly held beliefs about the most effective ways the state can reform people who cause harm. The introduction of the panopticon and design elements enforcing solitary confinement in the late 18th century sought to create an environment of surveillance and solitude, which were believed to instill obedience and promote reflection and, thus, salvation. 

By the early 20th century, prison populations began to balloon, leading to overcrowding that compromised ventilation and access to resources, worsening conditions that were already abysmal. As riots grew more commonplace in response to poor conditions, new design elements emerged in attempts to quell unrest. These included closed circuit television (CCTV) in the 1960s that allowed for remote surveillance and the division of incarcerated populations into “pods,” or smaller units. But the lack of interpersonal interaction in the “second generation” of prison design more firmly entrenched the inhumanity of the system and exacerbated the discomfort and isolation of those within it. 

While we use the language of rehabilitation to justify the presence of the system, its actual purpose is to quench our thirst for punishment. 

Interestingly, just as much as the state and the carceral system have used architecture to put theories about how to reform or rehabilitate people into practice, the infrastructure of prison facilities can also shape how the public perceives the incarcerated and satisfy society’s most punitive impulses. According to research by the Vera Institute, by the early 1970s, the remote surveillance ushered in by technology like CCTV was beginning to get replaced by direct supervision and design shifts that sought to make the prison environment less institutionalized and more domestic. Softer lighting, brighter colors, and upholstered furniture were features of this “third generation” of prison design, and while it correlated with less violence inside, it also garnered pushback from the public, who argued that such facilities were not “punitive enough.” 

Here, prison design was viewed as a way to exacerbate discomfort and pain, underscoring an often unspoken yet ever-present reality about the carceral system: While we use the language of rehabilitation to justify the presence of the system, its actual purpose is to quench our thirst for punishment. 

Similar examples have emerged in recent years, like in 2014 when voters in Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana, approved funding for a new jail only after local officials assured that the facility would not have air conditioning. The reality that the parish has summer temperatures above 100 degrees meant that the absence of central air would heighten the punitive nature of being incarcerated—a public desire that then dictated the facility’s design. Louisiana prisons are not unique in this either—according to the Prison Policy Initiative, at least 13 states in the nation’s hottest regions do not have universal air conditioning in their prisons and jails. 

According to data compiled by the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, over 60% of those incarcerated in the Jefferson Davis Parish jail are Black, although Black people constitute just 16% of the population of the entire parish. The overrepresentation of Black people within the carceral system both in Louisiana and across the nation can’t be divorced from this public desire to increase the suffering of those detained inside their prisons and jails. Here, the impulse to witness Black suffering is a throughline connecting incarceration to its predecessor of slavery. Not only does our idea of how prisons should function find its way into the facility infrastructure, but the design can also reinforce biases and concretize widely held societal disregard for those detained inside. 

Within the design community, interventions have been underway to push back against such punitive impulses. More “therapeutic” design considerations have included replacing metal fixtures with wood, installing decorative light fixtures, and furnishing spaces with items that have more color and texture. Since the 1980s, some prisons and jails have begun to adopt “green” programs, establishing gardens, nurseries, and greenhouses immediately outside their facilities and incorporating gardening, ecological monitoring, and animal care into their programming. 

These programs draw upon the philosophy of “biophilic design,” or the idea that incorporating plant life and exposing users of a space to nature can yield positive outcomes for their health and well-being. Studies around nature exposure support the idea by arguing that it can reduce stress and lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. Gardening spaces in particular also allow for activity that is both more communal, requires teamwork, and offers the satisfaction of nurturing something to life—a meaningful diversion from typical prison programming that is often set against the austere and monotonous background of the facility or a concrete courtyard. 

Experimenting with more humane prison design also means building more prisons, a state impulse that abolitionist organizers have been advocating against nationwide.

However, the adoption of intentional design that seeks to improve prison conditions holds a unique tension: It offers immense benefit to those currently inside, yet increased investment in it directly works against goals of decarceration. Experimenting with more humane prison design also means building more prisons, a state impulse that abolitionist organizers have been advocating against nationwide. 

Despite the design world’s inherent limits, some within the architectural community have been imagining ways to make sense of that tension. Since 2013, Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADSPR) have petitioned the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to ban the design of spaces for execution and solitary confinement, a campaign they won in December 2020. Earlier that year, AIA’s New York chapter released new policies and programming that urged architects “no longer to design unjust, cruel, or harmful spaces of incarceration within the current United States justice system.” 

While such conversations both within and outside of official organizations have been pushing the industry to move away from new prison construction, others have been thinking about the landscape of a world without prisons. This brainstorming also requires considering the infrastructure needed to do restorative justice work when harm inevitably occurs. For designers like DeAnna Van Buren, co-founder of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), these spaces, which might host healing circles, must be visually inviting and should draw upon all of the senses. They should be attached to outside spaces that can invite in fresh air and allow people to access nature if they need to meditate, cool down, or regroup. As opposed to solid walls, translucent windows can be used to allow people inside to receive sunlight while also maintaining their privacy from the outside world. 

DJDS projects have come in various forms, from designing mobile homes for formerly incarcerated people who need help getting on their feet immediately after release to helping cities design proposals for creating community centers out of recently shuttered prison and jail facilities. In 2019, for example, the firm was brought in to help the city of Atlanta develop a design plan for how the Atlanta City Detention Center might be repurposed into a holistic community space. The community engagement process that the firm conducted pulled together perspectives from Atlanta residents, exemplifying the power that intentional design holds when the public is more deeply engaged in the process. 

The spaces we inhabit and create for others are reflections of our beliefs, priorities, hopes, and biases. They can become physical manifestations of either our wildest dreams or our worst impulses. That is never more true than in the case of prison construction, which poses a challenge to architects who wish to infuse humanity into a system that is inhumane by design. But demands to stop constructing new prisons need not stymie creativity or limit the ability of the design world to engage with the abolitionist movement. Rather, they can be an invitation to build new spaces that will facilitate—and thus make real—the world without prisons that many still struggle to understand is possible.

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