Design Firm Wants to Build “Feminist” Jails and Prisons. Abolitionists Say “No.”

The architecture and design firm HDR Inc. hosted what it believed would be a standard event in the 2022 American Institute of Architects conference. It was held at its Chicago office. The firm, which has been designing for over 20 years, was a surprise. more than 275 jails and prisonsWhile it claimed to be progressive and morally responsible, the conference was met with strong support from abolitionists.

A coalition of advocates and former prisoners held a bannerFlyers were handed out to conference attendees. demandingHDR announced that it would not be designing new carceral facilities. Instead, it will build life-affirming infrastructure in the community. The rally emphasized HDR’s projects that would confine women and gender-expansive people, the fastest-growing segmentThe U.S. Carceral Apparatus

“The atmosphere was really charged because that morning, the overturning of Roe v. Wade was announced,” said Navjot Heer, a planner and designer with Design as Protest(DAP), BIPOC-led collective mobilizing in order to dismantle power systems that use architecture and design to oppress.

“We ended up being able to talk about how jails and prisons are also a site of reproductive harm and injustice,” she told Truthout, “and about how reproductive justice goes hand-in-hand with abolishing carceral spaces for folks who do have uteruses and experience intense forms of sexual abuse and harm through forced pregnancies, being shackled during those deliveries and being separated from their children through these jails and prisons.”

That morning, the coalition had emailed HDR in an attempt to dialogue with the firm, but HDR’s leadership failed to respond — and it wasn’t the first snub. Building Up People Not Prisons is an alliance that fights for women’s freedom from prison and the prevention of the construction carceral spaces. protested at HDR’s offices Every week in downtown Boston two months2021

“We never heard anything then, and we still haven’t heard anything now,” Sashi James, a member of Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH), a local activist group that leads the coalition, said in a podcast interview with Failed Architecture. “And this is multiple times that we’ve actually met them where they’re at. So, it’s disappointing as a community organizer.”

HDR did not respond Truthout’sRequest for Comment

Companies and government agencies justifiably build new prisons or jails by claiming that their designs are better. restorativeGender-responsive, outcomes-focused and gender-responsive trauma-informed. (Trauma-informed jailsPrisons should offer programming that helps women understand their traumas and practices that minimize triggers. The quality of life for both prisoners and staff will be improved by buildings that have natural light, programming areas, welcoming visitation spaces, and staff amenities. according to HDR.

Abolitionist activists, designers and architects insist that there is no gender-responsive jail or prison system. They also claim that carceral facilities are likely to cause disproportionate harm to poor communities and communities of color.

“I don’t care if you give me Louis Vuitton sheets and house slippers, you know? I’m still in a prison,” Maggie Luna, a lead organizer for formerly incarcerated people with the Statewide Leadership Council in Texas, told Failed Architecture. “I’m still separated from my family, I’m still not being prepared with resources to reenter society successfully, and then I’m still going to have that stigma when I walk out that I have a felony or whatever that I have to take care of.”

Kami Beckford, another designer-organizer with DAP, also said that a “trauma-informed” jail is oxymoronic. “No matter what, a jail will only be a space of harm,” Beckford told Truthout. “You will never find healing when you are isolated from the people that help you feel and be cared for.”

Furthermore, it is possible to expand or build new jails and prisons leads to increased incarceration rates, a historical pattern captured in the mantra “If you build it, they will fill it.” HDR could build structures that allow communities to thrive instead of prisons and jails, abolitionists argue.

“We need to build treatment centers in our community, we need to build mental health centers, community centers, parks, schools — everything that other communities have, we need to build the same thing and communities that are under-resourced and over-incarcerated,” said James. “And so it takes a village and we’re building that village, and we need architects to help us build the village. So join the team!”

So far, activists have successfully stalled several of HDR’s carceral projects. In Austin, grassroots efforts pushed commissioners to vote unanimously to reevaluate a strategic plan to build the “Travis County Trauma Informed Women’s Facility,” an $80 million project HDR was designing. Massachusetts agencies were forced to stop their plans. two occasionsThanks to the legal challenges and pressure posed by the Building Up People Not Prisons coalition, they were able to do so. Massachusetts was still there in June 2021. hired HDR to create a preliminary design plan for a new women’s prison.

For decades, politicians, carceral feminists, and design firms have used social justice rhetoric to justify the construction of new prisons and jails. They often attribute tortuous conditions to overcrowded or dilapidated buildings, while abolitionists argue that it’s the inherently oppressive culture of carceral institutions that traumatizes people.

“The culture inside of these institutions is such that every single day, women are either witness to, or the subject of sexual, verbal, and/or physical abuse — and that is driven by the culture,” saidAvalon Betts -Gatson is the project manager for Illinois Alliance for Reentry and Justice. “There is no amount of paint, there is no amount of posh, and there is no amount of anything else that you can use to design away the culture.”

The evidence supports Betts-Gatson and other abolitionists’ views. Jarrod Shanahan’s new book Captives documents how progressive reformers often championed building “safer” jails for women and queer people in New York City and how, again and again, traumatic and violent conditions were reproduced within each new structure. For example, Rikers Island’s Correctional Institution for Women (CIFW), when it opened in 1971, its planners promised that its new architectural style and colorful walls would improve the conditions for women. The jail was soon under investigation for inadequate medical care for the confined and overcrowding. In 1988, the city built a new women’s jail on Rikers Island, named after Rose M. Singer, a feminist who said the jail would be “a place of hope and renewal for all the women who come here.” By 2020, Singer’s granddaughter described the jail as a torture chamber. Gloria Steinem and other carceral feminists are calling for Harlem to build a new jail for women.

New York’s trend is not unusual. HDR’s York Correctional Facility for Women in Niantic, Connecticut, was touted as “one of the most progressively designed prisons in the country” because of daylight-friendly structures and skylights in a 1997 edition of Architectural Lighting. However, the prison has seen many atrocities in the past few years, including rampant homicides. sexual assaultCorrectional officers. A York woman was incarcerated in February 2018. forced to give birth to her baby in the toilet of a prison cell.

Similarly, the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center (WCC) claims to take an approach that is “trauma-informed, gender-responsive, family-focused, and culturally aware.” While some incarcerated people have saidWCC is preferred to other local prisons, but the facility has come under fire from residents for their sexual abuse, humiliating conditions or wrongful deaths. WCC had a $675,000 settlement with state in April 2015. enduring humiliating strip searches in front of male staff. In May 2019, a Correctional Officer was sentenced to 60 days In prison for having sex in exchange for cigarettes and Fireball whiskey. One woman testified that she knew that the officer could revoke her privileges if it was not agreed to.

Madelyn Linsenmeir was 30, and died from a fatal infection at a hospital. She had suffered unbearable pains and was unable to breathe after being arrested for a probation violation. Linsenmeir, who was suffering from opioid addiction after having taken OxyContin at high school parties according to her obituary, was transferred from central booking to WCC where staff members told her “the situation was her own fault for using drugs,” according to a lawsuit filed by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts and ACLU Massachusetts. The lawsuit alleges WCC’s staff was acclimated to being deliberately indifferent to the medical complaints made by or on behalf of incarcerated opioid users because their policy was to deny medically appropriate care to people suffering from withdrawal.

Despite these atrocities the architecture industry continues designing carceral spaces for the capitalist imperative of profit, often at great cost to the most marginalized.

“Architectural design is really service-oriented. So, you’re serving the client. And the client is the person who has the money and resources and power for these types of projects,” said Heer, the designer with DAP. “In these cases, it would be the DOC [Department of Corrections]. It’s not actually servicing the people who are going to be using that space. These spaces are tied to a system of profit. And it is extremely profitable.”

The design industry’s abusive, isolating and lonely cultureThis often allows the company’s leadership to pick oppressive projects without any input from workers. DAP works to encourage collective organizing among architects, designers, and other workers to end oppressive projects such as jails and prisons. Beckford and Heer explained that HDR workers have reached out DAP to support their campaign. But, they are concerned that speaking out at work would put them at risk.

DAP seeks to reverse the power imbalance in the design industry by allowing gatekeepers to give up their power and distributing it to those most affected by their designs. This is something designers can do. according to DAPBy immersing themselves in a community, and empowering long-standing residents to take charge of the design process.

“Communities themselves have a really clear vision about what they need,” Beckford said. “In design school, we are taught that we come and provide the expertise, it’s often like the white savior complex, as if we know what’s best for these communities even if we aren’t from these communities. But communities know what they need best, and that’s what we should be designing instead.”