Modern jails should be smaller, smarter, greener, and kinder, says an architect who has designed detention facilities for 40 years. Some municipal authorities agree, but will others follow suit?
We’ve all heard it before. The U.S. incarcerates at the highest rate of any nation on earth. Prisons and jails are full. Mass incarceration is endemic to a rotten system.
There are many programs underway that are rethinking our approach to punishment, in ways that emphasize accountability and pro-social behavior: quit drug habits, learn a skill, get a job, be reliable, be punctual, support your family, and pay your debts to your victims.
But few have given much thought to how our current design of correctional institutions undermines these enlightened approaches.
I have been designing jails (not prisons) for the past 40 years. In that period, the philosophy behind jail design has changed radically—for the better. Today, many are indeed safer and more humane than they used to be.
But too many are not.
The physical plants where individuals are detained only emphasize the fact that modern jails are being asked to do too much. They are being asked to address the failure of the courts, the prosecutors, the mental health regime, the education regime, and civil society as well—all of which creates a stream of young, disturbed, addicted and disabled citizens flowing into jails that fall well short of recognized standards.
And the damage is long-lasting, as I can attest from personal knowledge.
The son of one family friend was recently arrested on felony charges after an episode in which he appeared to have gone off his meds. The young man had a successful career, and was voluntarily admitted to a local mental hospital.
But the District Attorney filed criminal charges against this schizophrenic young man and asked the judge to send him to the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City—a facility built on a landfill in 1935 and which has barely changed its profile since.
It’s not surprising that he is now desperate and suicidal.
Rikers is just one example of the poor state of jails around the country. Physical plants are often outmoded, and many lack funding even for basic repairs.
Even as admissions to county jails both large and small are showing a downward trend, roughly 40 percent of those admitted are diagnosed as having mental health issues, and these inmates are staying longer and longer in jail—typically for six to nine months.
Jails are most definitely not designed to hold the mentally ill for many months and often years. Just as jail personnel are not trained to take on complex behaviors that often turn violent.
There’s an alternative approach.
Smaller counties around the U.S. are moving toward what has been called a “three-door” jail.
Some examples include jails in Montgomery County MD; Maricopa County, Az; and Duchess County, NY.
Images accompanying this article show photos and architectural renderings of what new and more humane jails can look like.
Under this model, an individual apprehended on the street for troubling behavior is processed through one of three approaches or “doors:” Detention, Diversion or Deflection.
Detention is the classic secure jail setting.Diversion allows for release on recognizance or Third Party release, and Deflection would move the individual into a ‘stabilization” center or a “sobering” center.
The Deflection option also allows police to avoid arrest altogether by diverting individuals exhibiting signs of mental distress immediately to a hospital or clinic for treatment.
In the “Three-Door Jail,” detention, magistrate, probation and mental health professionals are under one roof. Detainees arriving are processed and evaluated, then channeled into one of the appropriate “three doors.” Most leave in 24 hours.
The result is a smaller jail, since a good portion of detainees don’t linger waiting for court.
Since most states no longer allow involuntary admission to a mental facility (except in extraordinary circumstances) the stabilization model requires skilled mental health staff to convince the detainee of the benefit of staying overnight on a voluntary basis.
More municipal and county authorities need to think of ways to redesign jails to fit this three-door model.
In New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio has announced his intention to replace the discredited Rikers Island facility over the next ten years with replacement jails in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. But the size of these proposed borough jails threatens to replicate the discredited warehouse model, emphasizing security over deflection and diversion.
Los Angeles is thinking about building a 20-storey high rise to house mentally ill detainees. That goes against arguments that housing for this population should be on a more humane scale, low rise, and therapeutic.
The prevailing philosophy of jail building design is clearly colliding with enlightened approaches to incarcerating prisoners, such as the “three-door jail.”
Big systems like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, are stuck in a conceptual quagmire. Big bureaucracies only know how to mobilize large-scale solutions. Lacking suitable sites (due to NIMBY, environmental reviews, etc.), they are tempted to resort to high-rise buildings or to sites away from the community.
Either solution is conceptually deficient and operationally obsolete at the outset. Many law-breakers are high or crazy. Sometimes both. While putting them in jail is the only solution right now, defining the “problem” in a new way may lead to a new solution.
Modern jails should be smaller, smarter, greener, and kinder.
Small strategies include providing services under one roof. This speeds up the detention decision process, reduces lengths of stay and gets most arrestees out into the community faster and requires fewer cells.
The new Denver Detention Center, for example, has two pretrial courtrooms on the same floor as the intake housing area. Recent arrivals simply walk across the corridor to visit the courtroom for pretrial hearings. About 40 percent of those admitted are released within four days; most of them never use an elevator to go to court.
Smarter jails look like libraries. Their design allows them to fit in the neighborhood without lowering property values. Modern technology provides distance visitation and distance learning; remote arraignment and bail hearings; air conditioning and noise control.
Green jails require a green justice system that supports and contributes to sustainable communities. Locating the new jail connected to the courthouse eliminates the need for lengthy bus trips to court, reduces air pollution and speeds the adjudication process.
Kinder jails have more sunlight, good sightlines, smaller housing units, direct supervision, and environments with connections to the outdoors.
The moral irony here is that the closure of mental institutions has resulted in the criminalization of many mental health episodes. And obsolete philosophy behind jail design only makes the situation worse.
We can do better.
Ken Ricci graduated from the Pratt Institute School of Architecture and was elevated to the College of Fellows for his career dedicated to improving environments for the incarcerated. His designs have been recognized for their light-filled interiors and for their optimism that belies the building type. Jail administrators and county commissioners in large and small cities are his clients. He welcomes comments from readers.