Alternatives to Prison: Restorative Justice and Human Rights


Mediation Womb Trio Close Up1 (1 of 1)

On March 26th at 6:30 PM  I will be giving a talk with Raphael Sperry titled Alternatives to Prison: Restorative Justice and Human Rights at the offices of the San Francisco AIA chapter.  Led by Raphael Sperry, Architects Designer and Planners for Social Responsibility is working to change our professional code of ethics to say we will not participate in the designing of spaces for death and solitary confinement.  Raphael will be presenting the amazing progress on this campaign to date and I will be speaking about our efforts to create a new infrastructure for restorative justice and peacemaking.  Given the political focus and awareness of the state of our prison industrial complex it should be a lively discussion and I hope that you can join us for it regardless of your area of expertise. This is an issue that affects all of us and we each have a unique perspective and talent to contribute to making this much needed change.  Hope to see you there!

Changing the Face of Architecture


When I was in school at Columbia I was the only African American student in the MARCH program for much of the time. That number only ever increased to maybe 2 or 3 and none of them were women. While at school there was no black student group and no push towards creating more diversity in the school or the lack thereof in the profession.  Unlike recent efforts being made at  Harvard’s Graduate School of Design there were no strategies to bring in women and design critics of color to the school. I remember the shock on my face when I went to a midterm review in my second year and architect Mabel Wilson was on it. I had never seen a black person on a jury in all my 6 years of architecture education never mind a black woman. I was nearly in tears because I realized in the moment  just how isolated I had felt. I also thought “Thank god I am not the only one!” Mabel was brilliant of course and inspired me to keep going as I saw my future self physically mirrored in the profession for the first time.  I believe that an extension of this lack of diversity also meant that there was little or no discussion of the role that architects play in addressing the social and environmental inequities around us despite being located near Harlem and viewing the city as a laboratory for learning.


Fast forward 15 years and I find myself amidst a welcome sea of change in all these areas.  While at Harvard I was able to be present at the birth of the African American Student Union at the Graduate School of Design being led by another Loeb colleague Jean Lauer Brown. Through her leadership and those of the students in the group I felt supported by them and the Loeb Fellowship in a way I had not previously in my education.   I was so  proud of these 20 students when  they reached out to Kanye West in response to a series of interviews he delivered referencing his growing interest in design and his experiences with race as an artist in the United States. African American students in architecture have long had to lie low and try to tough out an education that did little to embrace their unique cultural view point  or address their concerns and interests.  As more students of color are coming into the  GSD  (  20 out of 700- not enough but better than 1) they are able to organize themselves and  the power of their unique contribution can emerge.  As I read through the rounds of e-mails they generated to get the letter to Kanye just right I hoped that this could be a catalyst for an understanding of these issues. I was thrilled when I heard that Kanye West and his team responded to say that he would be in town for a concert on Sunday evening and  wanted to meet with the group’s leaders. They met on Monday and Kanye led a very thoughtful conversation regarding the trajectory of design discourse and practice as well as the under-representation of minorities in design disciplines. Following that, he was inspired by all of the amazing things the students shared about the work and  invited the Graduate School of Design students to be a part of his concert.

I have always hoped that our successful African-American  citizens with privilege and capital would raise the awareness of the lack of minority representation in the creation of our built environments.  As a professional African American designer for the last 20 years I cannot express how emotional and exciting it is for me to see momentum in this direction. It is time to for architecture and design to be both diversified and democratized so that our built environments reflect the wealth of perspectives that we all have to contribute. Everyone benefits when all of us are at the table and I personally just  look forward to seeing myself reflected back to me a little more often.


Spreading the Word

After a grueling ten days in budget hotels, air mattresses and couches I have just come back to the bay from the Syracuse Peacemaking Project kick off and two very inspirational conferences the Peace and Justice Studies Conference(PJSA) in Waterloo Canada and the International Institute of Restorative Practices Conference(IIRP) in Bethlehem Pennsylvania.


In Syracuse I met for the time our project team including the illustrious members of UPSTATE , Stephanie Minor,the major of Syracuse, and a lot of the University’s architecture faculty over plates of barbecue after an amazing talk by Kate Orff of SCAPE (who I hadn’t seen since we were sorority sisters at UVA).  Her work was thought provoking; in particular her graphics on how our bodies are becoming deposit sites for toxins in her book and exhibition with Richard Misrach, Petrochemical America. I was also excited about her distribution of pamphlet toolkits that bring awareness of our urban ecology and design to the general public in her Safari 7 Project. I was inspired by her approach to keep moving with our design tool kit for working with Restorative Justice Practitioners and incarcerated folks. Barb Toews and I were about to test two new tools at these conferences and the democratization of design was being mirrored to me by Kate.


Image from Petrochemical America


Kate Orff Safari 7

After a train ride and a pick up from Barb in Buffalo we took off for Canada and had a nice dinner at a friend’s house with the Grandfather of Restorative Justice, Howard Zehr.  He is always an amazing person to spend time with and has been very supportive of our efforts to apply design to the movement he helped to ignite in this country. The Peace and Justice Studies Conference( PJSA) was held at Laurier University the next day. I was privileged to see  James Orbinski the former president from Doctors Without Borders and George Roter the CE0  of Engineers without Borders speaking about how we facilitate systemic change. The most memorable approach from Dr Orbinski being to listen, speak, think then act. George Roter helpfully reminded me of the role that designers can play in mass social change when we follow these practices and that we have to fail a lot in order to succeed. His organization even has a yearly failure report that they all fight to get into.

George Roter, Engineers Without Borders

George Roter, Engineers Without Borders

The Illustrious Failure Report

The Illustrious Failure Report

I tried to remember that as my partner Barb and I had our session canceled due to a double booked room and then got rescheduled to replace a session on hip hop and restorative justice. We stood at the door and tried to convince people to come to our session on Design as a Restorative Practice and most of those who came were unwitting participants that thought they were there for the hip-hop session.  I have to say that initially it was a hard sell.  How does design impact peacemaking or have anything to do with it at all?  We proposed to answer that question from both a research and design perspective and in the end those that came to sessions walked away as true believers.  We tested our design engagement tools with attendees and it was exciting to see basic design tools help people to relax and share their thoughts about creating restorative space for peacemaking. One of our attendees commented that what we were doing was a little crazy. So be it.

Montage from Design Studio in Chester Prison

Montage from Design Studio in Chester Prison

At the International Institute for Restorative Practices Conference we had a few more people. I saw some colleagues from a restorative justice conference I went to in a medium security prison last year where they are trying to set up a permanent RJ program.  Sadly I cannot promote their efforts here as politically it is being fought by their Department of Corrections.

I was excited to meet two leaders from Umoja who were using design strategies to create safe spaces in dedicated rooms of the schools where they work. The embedded nature of the design in their curriculum spanned a variety of scales from mapping safe spaces in the city to the creation of business cards for the program and location of the peacemaking room in their schools. I left both conferences realizing that what is needed is a booklet on Designing Restorative Spaces in Schools. It’s a good thing I have been commissioned by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth to write the first installment for them as part of their grant deliverables.  Funding for peacemaking is always welcome.

However today I found out we didn’t get the HDR grant to begin planning for a restorative justice center in Oakland. It’s the first one I have lost and I am trying to remember George Roter’s message that failure is a normal and healthy part of the road to innovation and systemic change. With renewed inspiration from my trip I am undeterred and will keep looking for funding for an infrastructure that I believe will change the face of criminal justice.

The Near Westside Peacemaking Project



Setting up the office and getting projects going has taken its toll so I haven’t been able to blog as much as I would like. However it’s a good sign as seeds that were planted in winter are starting to emerge. It looks like my fall is becoming spring.

To explain, in February of this year I was approached by the Center for Court Innovation’s Tribal Justice Division to see if I would like to partner with them in applying for a Bryne Justice Innovation Grant. The goals of this federal grant are to fund projects that plan, implement, and enhance place-based, community-oriented strategies to address neighborhood-level crime issues as a part of broader neighborhood revitalization.  The executive director of CCI ‘s Tribal Justice Division, Aaron Arnold , wanted to pilot efforts his organization had been making in bringing Native American peacemaking practices into the traditional justice system and this grant seemed perfect. Aaron and I had also been in contact for a couple of years prior around the importance of making space for peacemaking and restorative practices so I was ecstatic when part of his vision included creating not only a peace making program in Syracuse’s Near West side neighborhood but a designated space or even building for this program. It would be the first of its kind and we would be working with the UPSTATE initiative through Syracuse University to create a prototype I had been dreaming of for a long time.




I am posting today to say that two weeks ago we received notice that we were 1 of 10 recipients of this year’s Byrne Justice Innovation Grant.  I will fly out next week to meet Aaron( face to face for the first time), our community partners and UPSTATE to construct a project delivery method that may include a design build studio with Syracuse University’s  amazing architecture school.  If we are successful, and I think we will be, this will be holistic model that can be implemented in communities across the country.


The courage and innovation it takes to bring something like this together is inspiring and the fact that our federal government would fund it gives me hope that we are turning the tide in reducing the harmful impacts of our prison industrial system.

Continuing the discussion

There has been so much activity in the news lately around changes happening in our criminal justice system and restorative justice. So much so that I really feel we are on the brink of change. Perhaps I am naive and overly optimistic but its seems to work for me. I just did an interview with Archdaily that I hope you will check out as I think it conveys my enthusiasm for the positive shifts that we can make.

Later this month I will head up to the Academy  of Archtecture for Justice Conference to learn more about the industry behind the building of our justice architecture.  Soros Justice Fellow Raphael Sperry and I will be giving an informal talk at Portland State University and I will  go to his discussion at the conference around ADPSR’s campaign to revise the AIA code of ethics on the role that architects play in designing spaces for killing and torture. There is a great article in SF Weekly, Punishment by Design,that hi-lite some of these efforts.   As we make the move from the  punitive to restorative  I would also check out the article on BBC News Magazine titled How do people forgive a crime like murder?   It’s easy to see how we can use restorative practices for the lesser crimes but not always so clear for many on how it works in the case of more severe ones. 

I am still hoping despite the challenges that this questions poses that we are moving towards a new paradigm for justice and that the infrastructure we create will reflect a different set of values. While it will take a while I do think we are headed in the right direction. As a designer I would like to  keep raising awareness on the impact of creating  environments that nourish as opposed to those that punish.







The Great Debate

Prison Architect Videogame

Prison Architect Video Game

Recently in the architecture blogosphere there has been a query raised: “Should Architects Design Prisons?“.  My belief is that in order to tackle the damage being done by our prison industrial complex a multifaceted approach must be taken. Getting architects to stop designing prisons or to re-envision them for rehabilitation are certainly valid paths.  However I would add that there are other questions we can ask besides should architects design prisons or not. The reality is that the overriding attitude among correctional leaders and our general public is that these spaces should be for punishment and the road to re-envisioning these as places of refuge or rehabilitation is a challenging one in this country. So I would propose that we think outside of the box and find some additional ways of tackling these issues. To start the discussion I will offer two avenues my practice is engaged in. One is to  support alternative systems such as restorative justice that could  make the building of prisons at the scale we have known it nearly obsolete. In New Zealand where Restorative justice has been a federal policy for 20 years there are less prisons  being built because these programs are creating a less violent culture.  A second direction I propose is that  architects begin to think about  how we can use our expertise to engage stakeholders and the public in rethinking their attitudes around incarceration from  the inside out.

Visiting Room Redesign-Chester Prison Design Studio

Visiting Room Redesign-Chester Prison Design Studio

In response to this call for change my practice, FOURM design studio  has begun to design spaces for restorative justice programs and run design studios within prisons and jails to give agency to those that live, work and run these institutions. We teach everything from the philosophies embedded in Foucault’s Panopticon and the basic tools necessary to represent spatial ideas that can be done from within the highly constrained rules of  these institutions.  The result to date is an increased understanding of how space manifests the values and social political structures of our culture. It was a powerful experience for the men , staff and leadership inside the prisons where we were teaching.  We are close to winning a grant to continue this work and will publish a toolkit for others to do this work.

In addition to reaching out to those inside the system it is imperative  that we are speaking  to those  that do not and cannot  see all the impacts their actions are having.  For example, during a studio I co-taught with social scientist Barb Toews we spoke with students about the video game called Prison Architect being done by Introversion. The looks on their faces was devastating to see and mirrored the feeling of pain, disgust and disbelief I had when I first heard about it at the Game Developers Conference I went to earlier this year.  Oddly enough my practice also designs architecture for independent video games with very different themes such as spatial awareness.  I understand that like many video games the genesis of this one came out of a desire to not waste work done for another pilot game called Subversion. While their intent is most likely not to do harm the message they put out into an industry that reaches a massive audience is upsetting and  perhaps even a setback for those of us interested in change. I plan to reach out to Introversion with some thoughts about how they might be able to reframe their mission and share a message from the men in Chester Prison.

All these examples remind me that change really begins with a depth of awareness.  My hope in writing this letter is that we begin to expand our dialogue beyond the question of should we be designing prisons or not.  I would suggest we try to come together and generate more nuanced ideas on how designers architects planners and even video game developers can begin to redress a system that is hurting us all.

Herman’s House PBS Broadcast



Just a notice if you are free tonight to watch the PBS broadcast of  Herman’s House tonight at 10:00 PM EST. I have been in touch with the directors and producers of this film and they are completely committed to exposing the conditions of our spaces of incarceration. They do  so by telling the story of  Herman Wallace who has been kept in solitary confinement for 40 years in a 6×9 foot cell as he envisions what his  dream home would look like with artist Jackie Sumell. It  shows how imagining space  can provide those in horrific conditions some feeling of agency in their lives and healing . It is a powerful example I intend to use in my own work to prove the impact of design beyond just the physical. I hope you will be able to watch it and share your thoughts here and with others.

Herman's House

Herman’s House

Getting Images Inside

If we are to understand the full scope of the Prison Industrial Complex with regards to space and design we must be able to see it. In my experience thus far digital cameras, video and recording devices of any kind are hard to get in never mind physical access to the spaces themselves.  How can we seek to re-invision and diminish the existence of these spaces if we cannot use the power of images to convey our message?

This week I was sitting with Brad Grant, the director of Howard University’s School of Architecture discussing a recent award Barb Toews and I have received from the Fetzer Institute. The award will help us to build a stakeholder group around our development of toolkit that would help those working and living in incarcerated spaces to re-envision them for  restorative justice rather than punishment. He expressed Fetzers interest in having marketable images of this exemplar to use in their promotional materials, presentations and exhibits. I felt frustrated since I knew how challenging this would be for us but was hopeful when I returned to my office to see a link to the Prison Photography website and Katherine Fontaine’s recent post on “Sketching prison cells as an act of resistance.”

I was reassured when I saw this post and site that there are many of us across different disciplines trying to bring to light the destructive and damaging condition of our prison industrial complex. Our hope with the toolkit for working with incarcerated men, women and staff is that it will contribute to the efforts of Prison Photography by providing them with the confidence and tools to record these spaces in any way they can.