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Can Architecture Cure Crime?

The campus is spacious and green, with a grassy amphitheater and palm trees, volleyball nets, even a yoga studio. Inside, the earthy tones continue: abundant natural light, murals of waves crashing into the cliffside. From his second-floor office, Edwin Schroeder reflects on his view: “You don’t get that gut-dropping feeling anymore.”

Schroeder isn’t a professor and the vista isn’t of a liberal arts college. He runs a women’s jail, but one that emphasizes the avant-garde over security guards. “We’re not here to punish,” says Schroeder, which isn’t exactly a line you’d expect from a gatekeeper. But this San Diego County jail, which houses everyone from petty criminals to accused murderers and was once known for its sickening decrepitude, is at the forefront of a new and, of course, controversial movement in prison design, one that manifests a counterintuitive idea: You could build a lockup so pleasant and thoughtfully devised that inmates would never come back. In fact, they don’t even call it a jail. Welcome to Las Colinas Women’s Detention and Re-entry Facility.

 “Almost every sense of well-being is affected by environment."

It’s a lofty goal. And while it remains to be seen whether administrators will succeed at rebuilding lives, few would doubt that they’ve built a one-of-a-kind facility. This will surely raise hackles among tough-on-crime folks, but this isn’t one of those pay-to-stay country club prisons for stock brokers. It’s more of a social experiment. In an era when more women than ever are imprisoned — the female incarcerated population in the U.S. shot up nearly tenfold between 1980 and 2010, to 205,000 — Las Colinas is testing a new theory: by treating inmates as autonomous, responsible human beings, they might actually behave like autonomous, responsible human beings. Some would say it’s taking a woman’s touch. There’s not a barbed wire in sight (they’re there, just not visible), and long outdoor walkways provide a feeling of freedom. Thus, when a woman needs medical attention, she walks across that green campus to a waiting room that looks like one in any other doctor’s office. Even booking looks less like a holding room and more like a health clinic, with separate walk-up windows for arrestees to take care of various intake procedures.

Critics will argue that comfy prisons have little deterrent effect. But the design, proponents say, is gender responsive. For decades, conventional wisdom was that the only difference between a men’s prison and a women’s is that one has urinals. But there are countless differences between the sexes, including, for instance, that women prefer communal spaces whereas guys value solitude. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that 75 percent of women in the corrections system have suffered abuse over their lifetimes, and the dorms at Las Colinas are sensitive to that: The lowest-level offenders sleep in open-concept rooms with shoulder-height dividers, instead of individual cells. Recent research reveals that building designs, floor plans and overall ambiance affect prisoner interactions and their relationships with staff. And as it turns out, one year in, the sheriff’s department already reports a decline in incidents of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence. “Almost every sense of well-being is affected by environment,” says Barb Toews, a justice professor at the University of Washington Tacoma who studies incarcerated women.

In itself, using architecture to inform the prisoner experience isn’t new, of course. Philosophers from Jeremy Bentham to Michel Foucault have pondered the problem. But whether it’s circular, rectangular or stacked, the common denominator in today’s jails has been to have one big warehouse packed with as many prisoners as possible, and only minimal amenities.

"They are giving us an opportunity to succeed."

Not long ago, that would have been an accurate description of Las Colinas as well. It started in the 1960s as a juvenile hall. When the county started using it for an adult jail, they just added temporary pods. By the late ’90s, Schroeder says, it was overcrowded and falling apart. A 39-year-old woman in for identity theft, on her ninth stint in the slammer, remembers the old facility well. “Dirty, small, nasty, loud. It was fighting against you,” she recalls. After six months inside the new digs, she says this is the first time she feels prepared to leave, armed with cognitive behavioral coping skills for when she gets stressed, a 12-step program to keep her addiction in check and health insurance to ensure she can get her meds. “They are giving us an opportunity to succeed,” she says.

Even if this little social experiment is successful, it will be difficult to replicate. Although there wasn’t much political bickering within San Diego over the cushy living quarters for its criminals, there likely would be elsewhere. Las Colinas, which cost $221 million to build, is expensive, and the staffing intensive; the programmatic efforts require even more hands on deck. And, to be clear, less than half the population gets to take advantage of the open campus; violent and other serious offenders are still housed in more traditional cell blocks — though they, too, are painted in calming colors. Meanwhile, plenty of architects believe they shouldn’t be putting resources toward locking people away at all, on the grounds that doing so strengthens the prison-industrial complex. Raphael Sperry, president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, argues that management is more important than design — a problem that Schroeder has also faced, with many of his officers not buying into the re-entry approach.

Sure enough, an unholy number of variables would have to align for Las Colinas to succeed in changing its prisoners’ lives. But officials believe failing at something different beats failing at the same thing, over and over. “If it doesn’t work, we haven’t lost anything,” Schroeder says. “Why wouldn’t we go for it?”

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