In June 2016, the Vera Institute for Justice, a nonprofit national research and policy organization, launched an 18-month initiative called “Reimagining Prison” during an event at the Eastern State Penitentiary—the birthplace of solitary confinement in the United States. The goal of the campaign was to seek answers, said Nicolas Turner, the Institute’s president and director: “What are we trying to achieve when we put people in prison? What are the values that underlie the use of incarceration?” The project unfolded in the form of symposia, research, publications, and podcasts. As part of the program, Vera partnered with MASS Design Group to place prison architecture in historical context, and to imagine how future facilities could operate differently and what they might look like.

Released last year, the resulting report, on design strategies (a companion to Vera’s Reimagining Prison), is a scholarly quest to “understand how we got to where we are now,” says Michael Murphy of MASS. “We wanted to show how, in the past, prison policy and architecture have aligned, and to reveal what has gone awry, particularly with the acceleration of mass incarceration.” The MASS report for Vera charts the evolution of carceral typologies, develops a framework for evaluating the current landscape of prisons, and culminates with a vision for a “reimagined system” in which the mission and objectives of the current model are shifted from a retributive, punitive, and sequestering approach to a restorative and therapeutic one—one which many experts believe could greatly reduce the high recidivism rate and help former inmates succeed in reentering their communities.

MASS’s concept, inspired by the rehabilitative goals instated in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, is best described as a theoretical prototype: renderings paint a picture of what seems more akin to a college campus than a prison. The reimagined facility is located within a community, is human-scaled, and distributes space proportionally between housing, health care, education, and training. Rooms for socialization, learning, playing games, and making art feature generous wood surfacing and bountiful natural light—a stark contrast to the grim depictions seared into collective memory. While the report sets a “foundation for a point of view from which, with the right partnership or client, real ethical change could emerge,” says Murphy, the intent was not to propose something to be built but to lead a discourse. “The question is: how do we have enough information, data, and context to ethically engage in prison architecture today, in conditions where there are deeply unethical structures?

“There is a moral quandary that needs to be addressed in architecture,” Murphy says. “If an architect’s only ethical choice is to refuse designing prisons, that might be good for his or her conscience, but it certainly doesn’t assist those who are incarcerated. Our organization is saying that we need to participate in this conversation . . . If human dignity is at the core of what we believe as a society, then architects have an enormous role to play.”

Can architects make a difference in transforming our criminal justice system? Read more about Architecture and Prison Reform in the March issue.