Deanna Van Buren, right, works with an inmate on a restorative justice design. Lee Romney/Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

An Oakland-based firm is developing architecture to support restorative justice.

As it stands today, criminal justice in the U.S. exists inside an architecture of isolation: those within the system are shuffled between courthouses and prisons, which are separated from society by thick walls and high fences.

“Our dominant justice system is framed around three questions: What law was broken, who did it, and what do they deserve—with the deserving part being about punishment,” says Barbara Toews, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Washington Tacoma. And punishment, in the context of this system, equates to removal from society. “We rush to incarceration, as opposed to thinking about other ways of doing justice,” Toews says.

As the restorative justice consultant for the Oakland-based firm Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), Toews is part of a team of architects, designers, developers, and criminal justice workers who are creating a new model for how communities in the U.S. address criminal justice. Founded by the designer Deanna Van Buren and the developer Kyle Rawlins in 2013, DJDS imagines an architecture inspired by restorative justice—an approach that places people’s needs at the center of justice through a ethos of respect, transformation, healing, and amends-making.

Restorative justice, which emphasizes open dialogue between offenders and victims, has proved effective in many countries around the world, from New Zealand to Rwanda to South Africa. It’s slowly taking root in the U.S., particularly as an alternative to juvenile detention. Toews and Van Buren believe it could be a piece of the eventual path out of mass incarceration. Conceptually, though, moving away from the current prison system “is a bit of a leap,” Van Buren says.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at 716 per 100,000 people, according to The Washington Post; most countries have rates below 150 prisoners for the same slice of the population. Echoing what the John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Baz Dreisinger told The Los Angeles Times, Toews says that DJDS’s work is not designed to fly in the face of safety; the organizers recognize that not all people who have committed crimes can remain productively and securely integrated in communities. But there needs to be a shift toward a new, more human-centered model of justice, Toews adds. She and Van Buren believe it will start with communication across the fields of design and justice.

Van Buren believes that one of restorative justice’s biggest hurdles is the lack of infrastructure to support it. While innovative re-entry and alternative-justice programs are garnering some attention and funding, that’s only half of the picture. “If you’re letting a bunch of people out of prison, where are they going to live? Where are they going to do job training? Where will re-entry programs take place?” Van Buren says. “If you haven’t addressed all issues around de-incarceration, you’ll end up with policies that aren’t supported by a city’s infrastructure.”

DJDS, Van Buren says, is developing an architectural response to de-incarceration, and a way to address the root causes of imprisonment through design. Since 2013, Van Buren and Toews have hosted Designing from the Inside Out workshops with groups of incarcerated people in prisons across the country. Participants collaboratively develop new buildings and structures to support restorative justice; Van Buren and Toews are in the process of digitizing the toolkits that guide the workshops. “We’re not working with incarcerated people to design prettier boxes to contain them,” Van Buren says. “This is a whole new infrastructure.”

A rendering for a meeting room at the Near Westside Peacemaking Center. (Designing Justice + Designing Spaces)

Sometimes, that can mean a single building: The Near Westside Peacemaking Center, a collaboration between DJDS, UPSTATE, and Ashley McGraw Architects, engaged the Syracuse community in designing a building specifically geared at supporting restorative justice and healing conversation--the first space of its kind in the country. The building incorporates what Van Buren says were common threads that emerged from workshops with incarcerated people: Lots of open space, access to greenery, wide window views.

Another DJDS project, The Pop-Up Resource Village, will pilot in the low-income Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco in the next few months. The project, which is funded by various foundation grants, aims to reduce recidivism rates through boosting access to education, social services, and economic opportunities. Instead of a single building, the Pop-Up Resource Village will be comprised of various small elements that will be deployed throughout the community. DJDS retrofitted decommissioned MUNI buses to serve as mini resource hubs: One, the School on Wheels, will offer programming for formerly incarcerated individuals. Another, the Women’s Resource Bus, will act as a space for recently released inmates to connect with immediate essentials: showers, clean clothes, coffee, and a place to charge their phones and make calls.

A plan for the School on Wheels, part of the Pop-Up Resource Village for recently incarcerated people, set to launch in San Francisco. (Designing Justice + Designing Spaces)

While the San Francisco mayor’s office is excited about the Pop-Up Resource Village, Van Buren says, DJDS will need to prove its efficacy before the project can be integrated into city-funded programming. “Right now, we’re coming in as innovators with philanthropic dollars so we can test these models,” Van Buren says. “Once we can show that they’re worthwhile, the city can take them over—people are much happier to support things with their tax dollars when they know they work.”

DJDS is also in the process of developing a model for what Van Buren calls “restorative economics”—fusing justice and support with job training and opportunities. Restore Oakland, a DJDS project currently in development through a partnership with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, will be a restorative justice and peacekeeping space. The upper levels will house workshops and meeting rooms, similar to those in the Near Westside Peacekeeping Center; the ground floor will be a restaurant where recently incarcerated people can train to get living-wage jobs in the food industry. “It’s an interesting mix of people all trying to address the issue in the same building,” Van Buren says. “And for us, maybe these restorative justice and restorative economic centers are the next iteration of what justice looks like.”

Toews and Van Buren are committed to working with city governments and nonprofits across the country to develop similar buildings and plans, but they both recognize that this process will not happen overnight. “Right now, we’re just trying to create some new model and think about what restorative justice can look like on the scale of a single room, and at the scale of a city,” Van Buren says. “It’s one piece of a much bigger picture, but for now, we’re the only people doing this kind of work.”

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