Rethinking, Redesigning Incarceration

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The work being done by UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Barbara Toews around restorative justice and design has attracted attention from the Smithsonian Institution.

The workshop wasn’t going well. “We were bombing,” said UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Barbara Toews. The students, 13 inmates in a maximum security prison, didn’t want to hear what Toews and her co-instructor had to say.

Toews and her partner huddled during lunch and decided on a different tack. “Combined we have tens of years of experience doing restorative justice work,” said Toews. “This was our first workshop in a prison and it was clear we hadn’t thought things through in the best way.”  Social Work & Criminal Justice Assistant Professor Dr. Barbara Toews

Restorative justice emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. A key component of this approach is engaging both victims and offenders to work together to find a resolution. This can be difficult and requires that a perpetrator take responsibility for his or her actions.

Back in the workshop, Toews asked the men to rethink the criminal justice system. She compared the current structure to a boxing match with clearly defined winners and losers. “Restorative justice is different,” said Toews. To articulate this point, the pair asked participants to design a room that would allow them to face the harm they caused.

The men constructed a model on flipchart paper.  Dubbed the “no harm room,” there were doors instead of bars. There were also picture windows, fish tanks, plants, carpets, and comfortable chairs. The change in surroundings – even a metaphorical one – provided a spark. Students started engaging with the material and began talking about empathy and personal responsibility.

The shift prompted Toews to question why a change in environment made people more receptive to certain kinds of ideas.  She started down a new path, one that led back to school and a Ph.D. in social work.  Along the way she met Deanna Van Buren, an architect and proponent of social justice.  The pair combined their interests into a workshop that explores the architecture of restorative justice – specifically as it relates to prisons, jails, and courthouses.  

Designing Justice+Designing Space

Toews and Van Buren launched the Designing Justice+Designing Space project in 2014. The initiative is a mix of social science and design. Incarcerated men and women are taught principles of restorative justice along with basic architecture techniques. They’re then tasked with putting those ideas together to create design concepts for justice buildings. Diagram of a proposed community-based reentry campus created by incarcerated men.

One of the first assignments students work on is a group collage. “We have people pick images that represent to them the current criminal justice system,” said Toews. “We also have them choose pictures that show a criminal justice system built on love.”

The collages, culled together from magazine clippings, offer a stark contrast. The images used to symbolize the current system are generally blander and confined whereas a reimagined system focused on love is more organic with a reliance on outdoor nature scenes.

The workshops run anywhere from 10-20 hours. Participants complete readings about the subject material and keep a visual diary. They’re given prompts for the diary like “what does forgiveness look like” and asked to draw their answer. “As they go through the workshop they’re constantly working on and building their design and creative thinking skills,” said Toews.

The idea is to promote concepts of repair and regrowth within both an individual and the criminal justice system. Doing this requires challenging what it means to be incarcerated. “What is punishment,” asked Toews. “Is punishment separation and lack of freedom or is it separation, lack of freedom, poor living conditions, and constantly being reminded that you did something wrong and that you’re a failure?” Toews and van Buren ultimately hope that Designing Justice+Designing Spaces challenges people to critically consider the current justice system and the mass use of incarceration. 

A Beautiful, Restorative Fence                               

During research at a county jail, Toews had participants create ideal scenes where they could work on issues like addiction or anger. “This woman came up with two scenes: a deck in the middle of the woods and a beach,” said Toews. “She said ‘when I’m in jail I just dwell on my pain, I don’t actually deal with it but when I’m in the forest I feel successful, I feel prosperous.’” Barb Toews, Deanna van Buren, and Francis Goyes hand out a certificate to a workshop participant.

This woman could have been describing Bastoy prison. Bastoy is on an island off the coast of Norway. More than one-hundred men are currently serving time in Bastoy for a range of crimes including theft and murder. The men at the prison live in houses with other prisoners. These homes come equipped with kitchens and separate bedrooms. Every man works a job on the island. There are no cells or concertina wire. There are 35 uniformed guards but most leave the island at 4 p.m. every night. The recidivism rate for inmates released from Bastoy is just 16%, perhaps one-fifth the U.S. rate, although the comparison is complicated.

Pinning down the recidivism rate for the United States is difficult partly because of the multitude of state and/or federal agencies involved. A recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics monitored more than 400,000 prisoners released in 30 states. At the end of five years approximately three quarters (76.6%) of those inmates were rearrested and most of those (43.4%) within the first year. This is just one study but the findings suggest a different approach to incarceration in the US might be needed.

A key sticking point to a reimagining of the prison system is security. Toews points to work being done at Iowa State University as a potential model. “One of the landscape architecture professors is doing some interesting work at a woman’s prison out there,” said Toews. “She has had to work very closely with the administration and the security staff to find a solution.”

The end result included adding trees to the courtyard that were small with thin branches and limited foliage. This compromise is at the heart of Designing Justice+Designing Space. “The women in that facility want safety and security, as do the staff, and the outside design or architect firm doesn’t want anything to go wrong either,” said Toews.  “You can still have a fence, even if it’s beautiful and gorgeous and healing.”

An  Email  from the Smithsonian

The email had a long subject line and was from someone Barbara Toews didn’t know. She deleted it, thinking it was spam. That email turned out to be from curators at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. “Deanna is an architect and she’s used to getting these types of things so thankfully she read it,” said Toews. Incarcerated men present their design concept for a reentry campus to a panel of law enforcement representatives.

The museum has put together an exhibit centered on social justice. Toews and Van Buren’s work  will be included. The “Designing for the People” exhibit runs in New York City from September 29, 2016 until February of 2017 before embarking on a five-year nationwide tour. Work highlighted in the exhibit will also be featured in a book produced by Cooper Hewitt. “I think it’s pretty exciting, I mean, who gets to be in the Smithsonian?” said Toews.

Being featured at Cooper Hewitt is an honor; one Toews hopes gets people talking. “I would love for it to spark the idea in people that things don’t have to be the way that they are. We can think differently about justice, we can think differently about incarceration, we can think differently about the outcomes we want.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / September 23, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or