"No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails,” Nelson Mandela once said—and who should know better?—except perhaps Dostoevsky, who said the same thing a century earlier. By that standard, the justice system of the United States, with more people behind bars than any other country in the world, doesn’t even measure up to the society under which Mandela lived, which in 1993 locked up its citizens at a rate of 368 per 100,000, compared to 655 in the U.S. as of 2016. The U.S. even imprisons black men at a higher rate than South Africa did under apartheid.

But the number of Americans in jails and prisons—around 2.2 million—is now at a 20-year low and still falling, as crime declines and the FIRST STEP Act, signed by President Trump in December, has cracked open the door to parole for victims of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws passed in the 1990s. But the law only benefits people convicted of federal crimes; 90 percent of American prisoners are held in state prisons and local jails. Parallel efforts are under way in many states, including New York, where a report by a commission headed by former chief judge Jonathan Lippman has recommended reforms, including as a “top priority” ending cash bail. “Almost a third of the people admitted to jail are released within four days, suggesting that many should not have been jailed at all,” Lippman wrote.

The moment, says Stanley Richards, a former inmate of New York City’s notorious Rikers Island and now executive vice president of the prisoner-advocacy group Fortune Society, presents “a historic opportunity” to rethink America’s prison system, comprising more than 1,800 federal and state prisons, 3,163 jails (housing short-stay inmates and those awaiting trial or sentencing), and 1,852 juvenile facilities—in some cases from the ground up.

Architects are responding to this challenge in a variety of ways. At one end of the spectrum is Raphael Sperry, the president of the San Francisco–based Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, who has long advocated that architects should boycott prison design altogether. “The problem of mass incarceration is a policy problem—it’s not at its root a design problem,” Sperry insists. His idea that the resources devoted to imprisonment should go instead to “justice reinvestment”—medical and social services, housing, and education—may seem utopian, but the belief is widespread among reformers that the prisoner population expands to fill the cells available.

Privately owned prisons, which, as of 2016, housed 128,000 state and federal inmates, around 8.5 percent of the total, obviously require prisoners to stay profitable, an incentive that gets translated into policy, sometimes corruptly—in the infamous case of two Pennsylvania judges who took bribes to hand out long sentences to juvenile offenders—but typically through legal campaign contributions. Private prison PACs donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Congressional candidates last year, according to a report by the nonprofit Prison Legal News. And state prisons are an important source of jobs in many rural counties, so legislators have an interest in keeping them open—even if, as in New York State, it means inmates’ families may have to travel many hours by bus to reach them for a visit.

For architects who do design such facilities, there is a real opportunity to make contemporary prisons more humane and responsive to a goal of rehabilitation. The longtime dream of reformers to close Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, is finally on the horizon, part of a 10-year plan that envisions reducing the total number of jail beds in the city to around 5,500, about 3,000 below the current census—which includes jails on Rikers and in the boroughs. That 5,500 figure itself is way down from a peak of 21,674 in 1991. “It’s called building our way to a smaller system,” says Richards, a way to ensure that a future mayor won’t be able to reinstate the zero-tolerance policies that filled cells with turnstile jumpers, pot smokers, and other petty offenders in the 1990s.

Closing Rikers is just one step in a long process of reform, according to Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. The first step is to reduce the number of inmates. “The second,” she tells RECORD, “is to change the culture inside: how people treat one another: whether we prepare them for leaving jail, whether we connect them to support services in the neighborhoods they’re returning to.” Finally, the city will reconnect inmates to their communities by putting them in jails in their boroughs. The architecture firm Perkins Eastman was awarded $7.6 million in 2018 to undertake a study of how the city can expand and update existing borough-based jails, or even replace them entirely. “We think it promotes the goals of a fairer and safer system to have our jails closer to where families live and where their lawyers and the courts are,” says Glazer. “It’s an old model to build prisons on islands like Rikers, on the edge of town, out of sight and out of mind.”

The city’s plan will spell the end of such borough jails as the one in Manhattan still called the Tombs, although the original 1838 building whose Egyptian Revival facade inspired the nickname is long gone. Another that won’t be missed is the Brooklyn House of Detention, built in 1957 on the edge of downtown Brooklyn, a hulking white monolith that presents a grim, barred visage to the street. The challenge for architects will be to design secure, safe facilities that fit into neighborhoods. Perkins Eastman hasn’t released its report, so the city has yet to issue an RFP for the new facilities. The Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan jails will occupy the existing locations, close to the county courthouses, and the one in the Bronx will be built on a brownfield site about two miles away. “Our principle is that the jail building should be community-facing, a civic and community asset,” says Richards, enunciating a simple but startlingly novel idea: the jail as community facility, integrated with the surrounding neighborhood. “We should communicate to people who have not been convicted: You are still a member of our community and still a human being. And to the officers, medical staff, civilian employees: You’re not a tool.” Is there a reason why some inmates, properly vetted and supervised, can’t play basketball with a local school team? Teach chess to eighth graders? Be tutored by retired teachers? “Think about the visiting experience,” Richards urges. “If you go to Brooklyn on a visit day, you see a line of people around the block, because there’s no place inside for them. They should have lockers, a comfortable place to wait inside, vending machines. They’re not criminals, and most of the people they’re coming to visit haven’t been convicted of anything yet either.”

Elsewhere around the country, new jails are also planned, even if crime continues to fall, and some existing prisons will be renovated. Even the notorious Angola penitentiary in Louisiana, with over 5,000 inmates the largest prison in the U.S., is now trying to live down its reputation for violence and brutality. State officials are exploring a major redesign of Angola, in informal consultation with the Vera Institute for Justice, whose 2018 report, Reimagining Prison, is a bible of the prison reform movement, and MASS Design Group, a nonprofit architecture and design firm. The discussions are only at the idea stage, says Michael Murphy of the Boston-based MASS, who is approaching the possibility of a commission gingerly. “If we were awarded a contract to redesign a prison, we’d have to seriously consider the moral and ethical dimensions of doing so,” he tells record. “The question at the forefront of the moral dilemma is, can we actually reform the system as it exists through architecture? I think that’s a valid question, which we have to ask on a case-by-case basis.”

One of the first steps in redesigning Angola was the closing last spring of the infamous Camp J, a solitary-confinement unit for inmates so unmanageable that corrections officers have resigned rather than work there. Solitary confinement has become a lightning rod in the debate over prison design. Sperry, who has lobbied unsuccessfully to amend the American Institute of Architects’ code of ethics to specifically prohibit designing solitary units or execution chambers, estimates that state and federal prisons hold 80,000 inmates in solitary cells, typically measuring some 70 square feet. Some are there for their own safety, or to punish specific infractions ranging from “being unsanitary or untidy” up to murder, but mostly for “administrative segregation,” a euphemism for imposing control on uncooperative inmates. Most penologists doubt that solitary works, a view endorsed by Richards. “As someone who spent time in solitary, it never once deterred me,” he said. It is a cautionary irony that solitary, when it was introduced at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1829, was considered a salutary reform, removing inmates from the bedlam of the prisons of the day to repent and study the Bible in silence. The actual effect, of course, was to drive them mad, and it’s still doing that; a report by the U.S. Department of Justice shows that nearly 30 percent of prisoners in solitary suffer “severe mental distress.” At a Senate hearing in 2012, The New York Times reported, Dr. Craig Haney, an authority on incarceration, testified that “a shockingly high percentage” of prisoners in solitary confinement are mentally ill, and that the brutal form of punishment leads to “a profound level of what might be called ‘ontological insecurity,’ ” Haney said. “They are not sure that they exist and, if they do, exactly who they are.”

Increasingly, inmates are already mentally ill when they arrive in prison. A well-intended reform, the closing of state mental hospitals, beginning in the 1950s, meant that “a lot of people who are supposed to be in mental health facilities end up in jails,” according to David Bostwick, justice principal of HDR, the Omaha-based architecture firm with an extensive justice and health practice. Mental-health experts hailed antipsychotic drugs as a way to make mental hospitals obsolete, but failed to consider that people might stop taking them. “Jails are the largest mental health provider in any community,” Bostwick says. “We are starting to design jails as treatment facilities rather than containment facilities, and any new jails will more than likely have a mental-health component.”

Kenneth Ricci of the New York firm RicciGreene Architects, a practice devoted entirely to criminal-justice facilities, has thought a lot about how the justice system can avoid making mental illness worse. It should begin with an evaluation at the time of arrest or arraignment, so those who need treatment can get it. As for jail design, Ricci says, “Environment cues behavior. You maximize safety by designing for good sight lines, reasonable decibel levels, and daylight and exterior views, especially of nature, which measurably reduces adrenaline levels.” Ricci put those principles into practice in his award-winning 2008 design for the Union County Juvenile Detention Center in New Jersey, a one-room-deep building which arranges all the spaces along a glass walled corridor that wraps around a one-acre outdoor courtyard. The concept was his, but he was encouraged by the mayor of Linden, New Jersey, who told him, “I don’t want to see any fence around this building.”

Some of these goals can be achieved with technology, including acoustic engineering and the use of security glazing, which permits larger windows unobstructed by bars. (“Sixty-minute glass,” says Ricci—meant to withstand an hour of battering by a 4-pound hammer.) Centrally controlled doors eliminate the incentive for inmates to attack guards to steal their keys.

But some are questions of design. Brutally functional designs and the use of cold, hard materials both inflict psychological harm on inmates and staff, and symbolically shape and reflect the public perception of prisoners as cold, hardened criminals, as reports by Vera and MASS point out. “If you imagine a prison,” Ricci says, “you probably think of the movies, where tiers of cells are arrayed along a catwalk.” But new prisons mostly aren’t like that, and existing ones are being renovated on the “podular” model, which was conceived in the 1970s but fell into disuse during the 1990s, the era of mass incarceration, when every other goal was subordinated to building cheap warehouse-like prisons fast, and turning amenity space into cells as prisons became vastly overcrowded.

Now that prison populations are leveling off or falling, corrections officials are revisiting the podular model, which comes in many variations. The basic element is a suite holding from about 16 to 40 inmates, who can be surveilled by a single corrections officer. Meals are brought to inmates in the pod, which ideally has outside views and includes a day room, toilets, showers, and counseling and medical-exam rooms all within the locked perimeter. This minimizes the need to move inmates around the facility and gives prison officials flexibility to, say, keep members of rival gangs apart—or, as Bostwick suggests, group together inmates with shared backgrounds and problems, who can support one another, such as military veterans.

But the pod system isn’t just an operational convenience; it is meant to help model normative behavior by inmates and represents the beginning of a changing philosophy, away from the punitive model that has prevailed for centuries. Many countries in Western Europe regard imprisonment itself—the loss of liberty and separation from society—adequate punishment for most criminals; terrible living conditions aren’t required to reinforce the message. Over the last half-dozen years, Ram Subramanian of the Vera Institute has led three fact-finding tours of American corrections officials to prisons in Germany and Scandinavia. On one of these, in 2015, Leann Bertsch, the director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections, visited Norway’s Bastøy Island prison, a model for many reformers, which claims a recidivism rate of just 16 percent (compared to around 50 percent in the U.S. federal prison system). She came away impressed enough to open a minimum-custody transitional-housing unit for selected inmates nearing release. It houses 36 residents, each in individual rooms that they can lock themselves, and includes a kitchen in which they can prepare their own meals (without knives, Bertsch notes, although “you do see those in Norway”).

“Prisons don’t have to be so hardened and cage-like,” she points out. “I’ve always said about American prisons, they’re efficient” at keeping people locked up “but not effective” at rehabilitating them. “What I saw in Norway was a completely different approach. They make prison as normal as possible, as much like outside as possible, to make the transition smooth.”

Prison administrators can only do so much to redress the social and political failures that have created the current situation. Sperry insists that mass incarceration is inherently incompatible with the goal of rehabilitation and upholding prisoners’ humanity. “Once you commit the fundamental injustice of putting somebody in prison who doesn’t belong there, you can’t make up for it with better conditions or design,” he says. But other professionals believe architectural ideas can contribute significantly to reforming prisons and the justice system. Michael Murphy opposes mass incarceration, but he doesn’t dismiss the potential of architecture to improve society. “Architecture is always shaping behavior,” says Murphy, whose reimagined prison, described in the report MASS produced for Vera, is a campus-like cluster of low-rise dorms, carpeted and pine-paneled, on a grassy suburban plot. “It’s on the spectrum of behavioral science and art form. No architecture more so than prisons proves that’s the case.”

Ben Adler and Alex Klimoski contributed reporting and research to this article. 

Can architects make a difference in transforming our criminal justice system? Read more about how the Vera Institute for Justice and MASS Design Group Are Reimagining Prisons in the March issue.