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

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? As I approached this concrete building, these tiny little windows, barbed wire, high walls, observation towers, and on the inside, these cold, hard spaces, little light or air, the guards are screaming, the doors are clanking, there’s a wall of cells filled with so many black and brown bodies. And I realized that what I was seeing was the end result of our racist policies that had caused mass incarceration. But as an architect, what I was seeing was how a prison is the worst building type we could have created to address the harm that we’re doing to one another. I thought, “Well, could I design an alternative to this, other than building a prettier prison?” It didn’t feel good to me; it still doesn’t feel good. But back then, I just didn’t know what to do. What do we build instead of this?

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And then I heard about restorative justice. I felt at peace again, because here was an alternative system that says when a crime is committed, it is a breach of relationship, that the needs of those who have been harmed must be addressed first; that those who have committed the offense have an obligation to make amends. And what they are, are really intense dialogues, where all stakeholders come together to find a way to repair the breach. Early data shows that restorative justice builds empathy; that it reduces violent reoffending by up to 75 percent; that it eases PTSD in survivors of the most severe violence. And because of these reasons, we see prosecutors and judges and district attorneys starting to divert cases out of court and into restorative justice so that some people never touch the system altogether. And so I thought, “Well, damn — why aren’t we designing for this system?”

Instead of building prisons, we should be building spaces to amplify restorative justice. And so I started in schools, because suspensions and expulsions have been fueling the pathway to prison for decades. And many school districts — probably some of your own — are turning to restorative justice as an alternative. So, my first project — I just turned this dirty little storage room into a peacemaking room for a program in a high school in my hometown of Oakland. And after we were done, the director said that the circles she was holding in this space were more powerful in bringing the community together after fighting at school and gun violence in the community, and that students and teachers started to come here just because they saw it as a space of refuge. So what was happening is that the space was amplifying the effects of the process.

OK, then I did something that architects always do, y’all. I was like, I’m going to build something massive now, right? I’m going to build the world’s first restorative justice center all by myself. And it’s going to be a beautiful figure on the skyline, like a beacon in the night. Thousands of people will come here instead of going to court. I will single-handedly end mass incarceration and win lots of design awards.

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And then I checked myself — because here’s the deal: we are incarcerating more of our citizens per capita than any country in the world. And the fastest-growing population there are black women. Ninety-five percent of all these folks are coming home. And most of them are survivors of severe sexual, physical and emotional abuse. They have literally been on both sides of the harm. So I thought, uh, maybe I should ask them what we should build instead of prisons.

So I returned with a restorative justice expert, and we started to run the country’s first design studios with incarcerated men and women around the intersection of restorative justice and design. And it was transformative for me. I saw all these people behind walls in a totally different way. These were souls deeply committed to their personal transformation and being accountable. They were creative, they were visionary.

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