Taking on Solomon
By Stephen A. Carter (07/28/2010)

Rarely are designers required to consider an alternate use of a criminal justice facility beyond a projected 30-year life span, even though the current tilt towards sustainable buildings suggests just that. For the past four decades, the notion that a jail or prison would become anything other than a house of incarceration was sheer heresy. Land and space was consumed at astonishing annual rates with the wisdom of Solomon: Whatever has been will be, and, by the way, there is nothing new under the sun.

Some recent trends that we may intuitively acknowledge but are yet to be inculcated into a collective logic suggest that perhaps our planning, design, and construction process should add another phase: adaptive re-use. In the field of correctional design, more than a few buildings (warehouses seem to be a favorite) have been converted to house petty thieves or illegal immigrants. More than one high school, bank, or office tower has been transformed into a “temple of justice” for the courts. And most any building can be morphed into a police precinct.

At all levels, in past decades, governmental agencies reacted to “evidence” that suggested the slope of the incarceration curve would always tend towards the vertical. Designers never risked professional humiliation (not to mention losing the interview) by suggesting that one, among an impressive array of services, was the skill to design for an alternate future use. 

Can you imagine the creative responses that would have resulted had that been a requirement in the ’80s? There would not be a single 5-inch-slit window in existence today. Just maybe, fewer buildings whose only feasible alternate use is parts storage for abandoned bicycles would populate the horizon. Economic reality suggests that most every other building type be transformable, but that request has not found a home in correctional planning as yet.

To be honest, when a legitimate, publicly sponsored scheme is working, ensuring public safety, creating jobs and catapulting careers, why challenge the conventional wisdom? But then the economy tanks, and the justification for capital expenditure is no longer based on confidence in the historic upward trend. Since the early ’70s, Americans have been conditioned to accept that crime is lurking an earshot away and, as the annual BJS report on incarceration noted, we must have been correct, because year-on-year, we have locked up more criminals.

Unquestionably, the policies that placed the most violent and incorrigible criminals out of the sight and mind of society were justifiable and have contributed to the consistent decline in the crime rate since 1991. Very few would argue that these purpose-built facilities should not exist. Elected officials built careers suggesting that more of the same would mean safer neighborhoods and a reduction in crime.

If long periods of incapacitation worked for the worst of the lot, then, according to what we now recognize as flawed logic, a similar dose of incarceration would probably teach the less worse a valuable lesson also. The fact that six out of every 10 returned to jail within three years of release just didn’t seem to alter the mission. Quietly, however, news seeping out of incense-burning back rooms (rather than smoke and mirrored ones) suggested that our $20 billion annual capital investment in incarceration had little relationship to the declining crime rate. 

Today, the “above the fold” news is reporting that the cozy relationship between the crime rate and the need for bed-space seems to be headed for a trial separation. We now accept that perhaps the response of the judicial limb to the legislative and executive branches’ tinkering with the role of sanctions is not a sustainable answer to repeat offending. The currents are changing, evidenced by the renewed interest in community corrections and a vocal public demanding that all services must remain accessible but more efficient and less costly.

Does this new math potentially impact the role of the design community? That depends on a short-term versus strategic view. I doubt that we will soon see RFPs seeking correctional facility design services that require teams to submit experience with conversions of jails and prisons to alternate uses. But if, as ACA President and Massachusetts Corrections Commissioner Harold Clarke recently commented, the increased attention to reentry type facilities continues, perhaps this may be where notice of a gradual shift in focus begins.

My observation has been that, over the past two decades, many designers were asked to convert hospitals, schools, motels, warehouses and the like to correctional uses but were not asked to go the other way. While I am not suggesting that a surgical reversal is imminent, I believe that if most state systems could achieve a 25 percent community-corrections goal, as Clarke did in Nebraska, then the design of future correctional facilities may include a consideration of a life beyond their current use. At least the owner, operator, and architect should have the discussion about a functional life beyond corrections.

So far, the “greening of corrections” has focused on how to reduce the carbon footprint of the correctional facility and not about future uses. This is understandable because the growth curve has always been upward and perhaps the current flatline is only temporary. But I want to think that for certain custody categories, being “green” means more than a paper certification; it could mean the ability to change the mission and use in the future.

If there is “something new under the sun,” perhaps the combination of slow or flat growth in incarceration coupled with an acknowledgment that future demand could be for a more creative approach to the design for low-risk facilities, then at least a conversation could commence on the implications. I accept that imagining even 15 percent of our current 2 million inmate population being held in low-risk facilities is a stretch, but that’s what an imbalanced system requires: something new under the sun.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.

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