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Design of Correctional Facilities - a Case Study

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Design of Correctional Facilities - A Case Study

An article written for the Harvard Graduate School of Design Newsletter, Summer 1976

W. Easley Hamner, FAIA, Principal, The Stubbins Associates, Inc. Architects

In designing "correctional facilities," a somewhat euphemistic term revealing our societal

ambivalence relating to punishment or rehabilitation of criminals, architects must consider such complex issues as isolation vs. social mixing, the effect of the environment on both inmates and administrators, and priorities regarding the investment of limited public funds. Although many critical decisions are made prior to the selection of architects, as designers, we must respond to these issues. We must also understand the conflicting needs of inmates and those who work in these facilities, as well as those who visit. Our decisions are usually not ethically momentous, but we did face serious challenges on two recent design/build competitions in Boston: the Suffolk County Jail and the Suffolk County House of Correction.

Before the Suffolk County Jail, we had no experience with this building type, and some in our office wondered about the appropriateness of our pursuing such work. A jail was felt to be an unattractive building, both aesthetically and programmatically. We would have to become part of a design/build team to be involved; and therefore would be "working for" the builder, not the owner. Those who questioned our involvement did so on an ethical basis, believing that we would be forced to lower both our design standards and our services in order to be successful.

Some background is relevant. After more than twenty years of dispute, a court order forced replacement of the 135 year old Jail. Another Cambridge architectural firm, Monacelli Associates, brought the project to our attention, offering their expertise in correctional facilities. The project became attractive after we discovered the prominence of the site, the quality of the design jury, the opportunity of designing an important public building, and the challenge of meeting the constraints of the court-mandated occupancy schedule using the design/build process. These factors outweighed the reservations held by some.

Aspects of the old Jail influenced our design. When it was new, prior to the Civil War, it was a state-of-the-art facility. People came from around the world to see how enlightened criminal care might be provided. It was a radical building design for its time: cells were not located in a dungeon, but on tiers that provided each with natural light, the tiers were arranged so that guards could oversee the entire facility from one location - outside the cell block. In addition to age, and outmoded standards, its major problem was that since the officers were located outside the cellblocks, each block was "ruled" by the strongest inmate. For these and reasons related to new standards, the court decided that incarceration in the old Jail amounted to cruel and inhumane punishment. New standards are particularly important in a jail, which as a pre-trial facility holds inmates who are presumed innocent.

We were given a carefully defined program, which represented a new enlightened control

concept. Officers were to be placed inside the housing units and expected to supervise and control the inmates interactively. A separate, isolated control area was to be shared by two units. One reason for our selection was that our design went beyond the program, providing outdoor recreation areas adjacent to the inmates' dayrooms. During an October tour of the old Jail, I looked at the empty recreation areas, surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, and asked how often they were used. The response was chilling, "They are closed until spring. The weather gets too bad, and we just don't have the staff for control during the winter. The average inmate was nineteen, and most had been there several times previously. Recognizing their likely pent-up energy, frustration, and anger, we designed a series of small outdoor recreation spaces, located just outside each housing unit, stacked above each other. Security is provided by a grille attached to a space frame, which adds detail to a normally stark and forbidding building type. It was our concern for the prisoners as human being - an ethical concern, one might say - which led us to this solution. It won enthusiastic support from all involved.

Most who think about a correctional facility think only of the inmates. Few consider the long-term effects of the environment on those who are released, or on those who work there: correctional officers, teachers, and volunteers, as well as visitors such as lawyers, family and friends. A careful balance must be developed: the interior environment must clearly communicate incarceration to the criminal, but also aid those whose lives can be restored. People who work in these environments

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