We Must Plan for a Decarceration Nation
By Deanna Van Buren
May 07, 2019
Photo courtesy Emily Hagopian
Deanna Van Buren, recipient of the 2018 Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Prize, was recently featured in Architect Magazine. In her op-ed, she argues against the reimagining of prisons and jails, and instead for an architecture practice that centers on decarceration and supports diversion and reentry.
Van Buren is an award-winning architect and co-founder of non-profit architecture and real estate development firm Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS) in Oakland, California. She is recognized as a national leader in formulating and advocating for restorative justice centers, a radical transformation of justice architecture. Van Buren is also the co-founder of BIG Oakland (Building Industry Gathering), a co-working space supporting small minority- and women-owned firms in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry.
Below, Van Buren's op-ed is excerpted in full.
The reimagining of prisons and jails is a task in which the firm I co-founded with Kyle Rawlins is often asked to participate—and one that is a misguided use of our time and energy. In the last decade, books such as Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (The New Press, 2010) and social justice movements like Black Lives Matter have helped to raise the country’s consciousness around mass incarceration and push us into an age of criminal justice reform. Though our country still has the world’s highest incarceration rate, jail admission rates have dropped by 25 percent since 2008, and national prison admission rates have come down by 24 percent since 2006, according to the 2018 Vera Institute of Justice report “The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration.”
With the movement toward decarceration set in motion, we will need to address a series of pressing issues, including the planning and building of infrastructure, such as housing, in underinvested communities to which citizens are returning; the need to cultivate restorative reinvestments in these communities; and the adaptive reuse of defunct and vacant criminal justice infrastructure in our city centers and rural lands.
Policy Implications on the Built Environment
Little thought has been given to the role that the built environment plays in supporting the success of criminal justice policy changes and programs created to support decarceration. In California, for example, Assembly Bill 109, which supports early release from jail, and Proposition 47, which reduces penalties for certain lower-level drug and property offenses, have led to more citizens returning to their communities amid gentrification and—in cities like San Francisco and Oakland—a housing crisis. The scarcity of affordable housing have an already challenging transition back into society nearly impossible.
My firm is working with local black churches in Oakland, Calif., to transform their assets into re-entry infrastructure for released prisoners. For example, we’re turning a charter school building owned by the Center of Hope Community Church into the Hope Re-Entry Campus. There, up to 40 individuals will have access to job training, a place to spend time with families, and therapeutic resources as they find full-time employment and the necessary permanent housing to stay out of prison.
Obsolete Criminal Justice Infrastructure
The move to decarceration has led accordingly to closures of detention facilities. From 2011 to 2016, 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities were closed or announced imminent closure in more than 20 states, according to the Sentencing Project's 2016 report “Repurposing: New Beginnings for Closed Prisons.” New strategies for repositioning these facilities are required. For example, the population of the Atlanta City Detention Center has dropped from 1,314 detainees to about 100. Yet the nearly empty building still costs about $33 million annually to operate. Community activist groups, including the Racial Justice Action Center and Women on the Rise, are garnering local support to transform the structure into a center for freedom and wellness while advocating for policy shifts to release the remaining 100 detainees.
When facilities are not repurposed efficiently, they can lead to safety, public health, and economic concerns in the surrounding neighborhoods, with taxpayers footing the bill to cover their substantial operating costs. Or worse yet, the facilities may reopen as places of incarceration with the opportunity for restorative development lost.
"When facilities are not repurposed efficiently, they can lead to safety, public health, and economic concerns in the surrounding neighborhoods, with taxpayers footing the bill to cover their substantial operating costs. Or worse yet, the facilities may reopen as places of incarceration with the opportunity for restorative development lost."
New Justice and Community-led Development
Across the country, communities are rising to engage in justice reinvestment by embracing alternative conflict resolution strategies and proposing ideas to bring in needed resources and infrastructure. Restorative justice centers, a new and emerging building typology, will require professional, technical, and financial resources to develop and implement.
In Oakland, our firm is working with a consortium of nonprofits that run Restore Oakland, the country's first center for restorative justice and restorative economics where low-wage restaurant workers train for living-wage jobs in fine dining, and where youths aged 15 to 25 are diverted from court to Restore’s dedicated spaces for conflict resolution and peacemaking.
A Solution: Filling the Gap, Planning the Future
In the age of mass decarceration, cities will need to research the outcomes of current criminal justice policy and the impact of future policies on the built environment. This research will hopefully support communities and governments in their fight to reinvest in restorative infrastructure. My firm is currently working on the Restorative Justice City Reinvestment Tool with the National Institute of Corrections’ Justice Mapping Center and Detroit Justice Center.
In our most historically under-resourced communities, the investment in infrastructure for our punitive justice system in lieu of educational, economic, and healthcare resources illustrates how the built environment embodies many of our society’s gross inequities. Flipping this paradigm will require the attention of our most talented and sensitive architects, designers, and planners. We have a unique way of thinking that helps us manifest complex ideas, concepts, and philosophies into real space and time—all skills that are desperately needed at the edge of social change. Together, we can steward and even lead a successful effort to decarcerate our nation and build equitable and just communities.
- “Repurposing: New Beginnings for Closed Prisons” by Nicole Porter. The Sentencing Project, Dec. 14, 2016.
- “Impact of Realignment on County Jail Populations” by Magnus Lofstrom and Steven Raphael. Public Policy Institute of California, June 2013.
- “The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration” by Jacob Kang-Brown, Oliver Hinds, Jasmine Heiss, and Olive Lu. Vera Institute of Justice, June 2018.
- “Prisoners in 2016” by E. Ann Carson. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice, updated Aug. 7, 2018.
- “Transforming Closed Youth Prisons: Repurposing Facilities to Meet Community Needs” by Hanna Love, Samantha Harvell, Chloe Warnberg, and Julia Durnan. Urban Institute, June 2018.