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Home » What a World Without Prisons Could Look Like: Deanna Van Buren (Transcript)

What a World Without Prisons Could Look Like: Deanna Van Buren (Transcript)

Deanna Van Buren

Deanna Van Buren – Architect

A lot of people call me a “justice architect.” But I don’t design prisons. I don’t design jails. I don’t design detention centers, and I don’t even design courthouses. All the same, I get a call every week, saying, “OK, but you design better prisons, right? You know, like those pretty ones they’re building in Europe.”

And I always pause. And I invite them, and I invite you today, to imagine a world without prisons. What does that justice feel and look like? What do we need to build to get there? I’d like to show you some ideas today of things that we’re building. And I’m going to start with an early prototype.

This I built when I was five. I call it “the healing hut.” And I built it after I got sent home from school for punching this kid in the face because he called me the N-word. OK, he deserved it. It happened a lot, though, because my family had desegregated a white community in rural Virginia.

And I was really scared. I was afraid. I was angry. And so I would run into the forest, and I would build these little huts. They were made out of twigs and leaves and blankets I had taken from my mom. And as the light would stream into my refuge, I would feel at peace.

Despite my efforts to comfort myself, I still left my community as soon as I could, and I went to architecture school and then into a professional career designing shopping centers, homes for the wealthy and office buildings, until I stepped into a prison for the first time.

It was the Chester State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania. And my friend, she invited me there to work with some of her incarcerated students and teach them about the positive power of design. The irony is so obvious, right?

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