Abolition is an alternative in the making.

design » on the inside


I was trying to figure out how to talk of architecture and design in an issue about bridging gaps. As I designed the layout, criminal justice reform and prison abolition was a recurring theme. That's when I wondered about what research is out there on the architecture of prisons. What I found was a solution that seemed so simple. Leaving me, once again, humbled as a student of life.

Halden Prison in Norway is often described with the word
luxury. When Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, former prison governor, is handed that word, he responds accordingly, “If we have created a holiday camp for criminals here, so what? We should reduce the risk of reoffending, because if we don't, what's the point of punishment, except for leaning toward the primitive side of humanity?"

Norway's second largest prison embodies the guiding principles of the country's penal system: repressive prisons do not work and treating prisoners humanely boosts their chances of reintegrating into society. Design plays a key role at Halden. "The most important thing is that the prison looks as much like the outside world as possible," says architect, Hans Henrik Hoilund.

Since shifting to a reform model over 40 years ago, Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%.[2] Whereas over 60% of prisoners in the United States will be back in jail within three years of their release.[3]

The United States is doing its research, often referencing systems like Halden. The short film,
Building Justice (a snippet shared to the left—I'm having no luck at finding it all in one place), is a project by Impact Justice partnered with legendary architect Frank Gehry and founder of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Program, Susan Burton, during the first year of their ongoing project Building Justice. Students rethink how a prison can function, how the environment hinders or promotes growth, and how those incarcerated are able to interact with their community of support (prisons are often hidden away and inconvenient or impossible for family and friends to access).  

Could this way of thinking exist in the states? I'd like to think so, but the American incarceration system was never intended to be a place for reform. It was always meant to be a place of punishment. Cracking open the hearts and minds of people in our country who are struggling to see beyond "what has always been done" is a far bigger task before building any structure. I find when I'm in a conversation involving topics like this, it serves our discussion more by laying the foundation with reteaching the definition of words like abolition—which isn't simply about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, walking away, and wishing everyone good luck with their new state of chaos. It's pushing humankind to think differently, to think bigger and better.