With its grassy fields, brightly colored walls, and wide open spaces, the Las Colinas Detention and Re-Entry Facility in San Diego County, California, looks more like a college campus than a jail for women. Communal buildings have large windows to allow in plenty of natural light, and designers have replaced stainless-steel furniture with items made from wood and softly colored plastic. Outside, walking paths guide inmates from one building to another, and the central quad lets inmates interact with each other.
For this particular jail, which in 2014 replaced a bleak and overcrowded facility built in the 1960s, the county and the designers looked to higher-education campuses for inspiration. It’s certainly a different way of thinking about adult correctional facilities. But with traditional designs heavily focused on punishment and failing to reduce the rate of recidivism, this new approach could be a model for the future.
“All that reflects what their daily lives would be when [the inmates] return to the community,” says Jim Mueller, who was the principal in charge of the project at KMD Architects. “The intent was to replicate, as much as possible, the demands and responsibilities they would face out in the community within this particular facility.”
The facility has three kinds of housing: maximum-security, medium-security, and low-security units, in which women sleep in cubicles instead of cells—much like a dorm. “[The county’s] thought was that the facility should incorporate a step-down process,” Mueller says. Inmates are first housed based on their risk levels, but “the various types of vocational and educational programs create an incentive for them to improve on their behavior and move to less and less restrictive environments.”
Just like a college campus, there are different buildings for different purposes. There’s a dining hall, a building for medical and mental health services, and another for recreation and education. And inmates are typically escorted by deputies.
Las Colinas, which cost the county $268 million, is among the first adult jails in the U.S. to try out such a design. The first phase of the project has only been operational for a year, but officials say both inmates and staff have reported positive responses.
Mueller says this concept of giving inmates fewer restrictions and more freedom to move around within the confines of a facility isn’t particularly new. It’s been used in the design of juvenile detention facilities for more than a decade. “There has always been a thought that since these are juveniles, their behaviors can be changed,” he says. “At the adult level, it was thought that they’ve established their sociological, psychological, and behavioral personalities to the extent they’d be less open to rehabilitation.”
The U.S. has, by far, the largest incarcerated population in the world, with nearly 1 out of every 100 adults in prison or jail, according to the National Research Council. And even when adults are released, many end up back in jail or prison.
“The counties can no longer look at it just as a jail,” Mueller says. “They have to look at a continuum of services. So once these people get out of the incarcerated environment, at the community level they have to provide follow-up services. Because if you just put an inmate out on the street, his likelihood of re-offending is still fairly high.”
In fact, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, among the 400,000 plus prisoners surveyed in 2005, two-thirds were re-arrested within three years of their release. But education programs have been shown to reduce those numbers. So, for the county and the architects behind Las Colinas, it made sense to model the facility after a university campus.
But is this the future of jails, as touted last week by Popular Mechanics? Perhaps. Mueller says his firm has been getting requests from other correctional agencies with similar ideas.
One activist hopes that the future won’t involve any more prisons and jails than the U.S. already has. Raphael Sperry is the president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit that’s been calling for architects and designers to stop designing correctional facilities and focus on increasing community, public health, educational and recreational buildings.
Las Colinas is a good step in humanizing incarcerated people, Sperry says, but doesn’t go far enough to reach his group’s goal. “This facility, if it’s operated as intended, would do less to violate people’s human rights than typical American jails and prisons.”
But why not, he asks, build this sort of facility as a community center in neighborhoods instead? “There are different types of buildings to help address problems in the high-crime, high-poverty communities that we need,” he says—buildings and services like the ones provided at Las Colinas.
The problem is, he says, women shouldn’t have to go to jail to get those services. “If you had built those components in their community, you can rapidly fill them up with people who need that kind of work and you could operate it at a fraction of a cost.”
It’s not that the county and the architects disagree with Sperry, says Mueller, but that’s something that needs to be addressed by politicians. In this case, the sheriff’s department is responding to a need to better house and work with women who are already incarcerated.
“It may be the case that if you first recognize their humanity in prison,” says Sperry. “Maybe that’s the only way to recognize that you don’t need to put them in prison at all, but I’d like to see people’s consciousness evolve faster.”