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What kind of prison might the inmates design?

Posted at 2:50 PM, Sep 01, 2014

The workshop leaders came laden with markers in colors other than red and blue (gang colors), drafting rulers crafted from museum board (too dull to double as weapons) and kiddie scissors (ditto).

All the students wore orange. And on this final day, their paper models were taking shape.

Architect Deanna VanBuren adjusted a piece of tracing paper over Anthony Pratt's design, showing him how to mark the perimeter to show walls and windows, then urging him to use dots to indicate open spaces.

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.

The spaces they were planning could be at a New Age retreat, but these were conceived by inmates at San Francisco's County Jail No. 5.

Most inmates on this 48-man jail pod are awaiting trial on violent crimes. All must agree to participate in a program called "Resolve to Stop the Violence," which involves concepts of restorative justice, an alternative to traditional criminal justice that focuses on healing victims and offenders alike. This day's class allowed them to explore their feelings about the system that landed them here and how its physical contours might be altered.

As Pratt stippled his drawing with concentration, Keith Wilkins, 25, painstakingly cut the waterfall for the 3-D model. Both are facing murder charges. Lamar Paschall, 32, charged with kidnapping, rape and robbery, helped with the trees.

Some of their models are fanciful, individual cells with Internet connections and even outdoor decks exist in Norway but aren't likely to become part of U.S. prison design any time soon. Others, such as peace-making centers where agreement on punishment is reached collaboratively without entering a courtroom, are already becoming a reality.

"I feel an extra sense of purpose today," Paschall had told his fellow classmates as the workshop got underway. "Hopefully this can become fruitful and turn into something real down the line."

The 18 men who enrolled in the four-day workshop this summer were contemplating restorative justice through a novel lens: design.

As consensus builds that traditional criminal justice models are failing to prevent recidivism, VanBuren and fellow instructor Barb Toews, an academic, have joined a small chorus of designers, researchers and even judges and wardens calling for new spaces to match the tenets of restorative justice.

"Architects are sort of the psychiatrists of the system," said Linda Bernauer, chair of the American Institute of Architects' Academy of Architecture for Justice. "We have to listen to everyone, and victims and perpetrators don't generally have much of a voice. ... The intent is to talk about how therapeutic spaces can provide better outcomes and have architects be the leaders as opposed to just being hired to do what we're told."

Restorative justice concepts were first promoted in the 1970s by global practitioner and theorist Howard Zehr, now a professor at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. The goal was to make the needs of victims central, and by doing so effect broader healing for all, communities included.

Critics of restorative justice contend the process is too subjective and could lead to proposed remedies that are wildly disparate. As a result, some victim organizations and hard-line prosecutors reject it.

But the practice has nonetheless spread globally and throughout the U.S. as a body of evidence grows showing it helps reduce school expulsions, keep youths out of the criminal justice system and prevent youths and adults who have already been sentenced from re-offending.

The conversation has now turned to space.

Courtrooms are out, said Sujatha Baliga, director of the Restorative Justice Project at the National Council on Crime & Delinquency, a research and policy organization. They're "so binary- someone is going to be victor and someone vanquished."

Enter VanBuren.

The Oakland-based architect was working for a big firm when she heard bereaved-father-turned-restorative-justice-proponent Azim Khamisa on a podcast and was deeply moved. After his son was murdered by a teenage gang member, Khamisa reached out in forgiveness to the boy's grandfather (as well as the assailant) so they could all heal, and the two men launched the San Diego-based Tariq Khamisa Foundation to address the roots of youth violence.

Soon after, she heard the founder of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth speak about transformations at a West Oakland middle school, where suspensions and expulsions of African-American students had plummeted. They teamed and VanBuren designed her first stand-alone restorative justice room- in a portable trailer at an Oakland high school. She had found her calling.

VanBuren is now helping to design a peacemaking center in Syracuse for the New York-based Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit arm of the state court system. With separate entrances for victims and offenders, views of a verdant terrace from the main peacemaking room and private spaces for reflection, it was crafted after intensive community workshops similar in many ways to the one in the jail.

Toews, meanwhile, who was raised in the Mennonite faith, got her start as a restorative justice practitioner in the 1990s while doing her voluntary service and was hooked. In 2000, she conducted a workshop in a Pennsylvania prison with 13 inmates serving life sentences, most of whom had committed murder.

The men were defensive, reluctant to share their feelings. So she shifted to metaphor: The traditional system, she told them, is like a boxing ring, with a winner and loser and outsiders determining the outcome.

"What would a room look like," she then asked, "where you could face anything you've done and be accountable for it?"

Together, they created a vision and called it "Do No Harm" room. A picture window with a mountain view. A door that locks from the inside. Plants and rugs. The workshop dynamic shifted.

Later, Toews wondered, "If we treated it as a potential for something literal, if the environment were different, how might that change how we do justice?"
She was exploring the question as a doctoral student a few years ago when VanBuren tracked her down. "I could not believe that someone had similar interests to me," Toews said. "It was the craziest, luckiest thing."

San Francisco County Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi welcomed the workshop into the jail.

He lauded the women's work for offering a perspective "that is woefully absent in assessing how this nation's incarceration system operates and fails."

On the final workshop day in June, the inmates scrambled to piece together their models with glue sticks and tape.

Deandre Hill, 27, convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and Christopher Gillis, 44, facing murder and commercial burglary charges, sat side by side. They envisioned a cell with a computer that allowed for communication with family. Natural light, as in all the models, was key.

"The most important thing is to be accountable, but in order to work on yourself you have to be comfortable," said Gillis, who is planning a restorative justice circle to "make up for the harm" he had inflicted on his 16-year-old son through his absence and violent tendencies.

Then it was time to present their models to the larger pod and a panel of outside reviewers.

As his teammates stood beside him, Dante Hayes, 33, facing charges of burglary and burglary to commit rape, showed a design with a tree in the atrium representing growth and "the ability for us to grow." A kitchen would feed all visitors. (The group scrapped the outdoor pond because of the drought, they explained to laughs.)

In a closing circle after the presentation, Pratt, who recently participated in a restorative justice-style circle with his girlfriend, said his whole outlook had changed: "Instead of being barbarians and just beating each other upside the head, we can be like family."

VanBuren said she is encouraging big architecture firms that design jails and prisons to hold similar workshops with inmates and guards.

"The goal is to empower those inside the institutions and prod architects to actually talk to the people they are designing for," she said. "That's how an architect would practice in any other setting."