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?
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.
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.
Danny is one of those souls. He’s been incarcerated at San Quentin for 27 years for taking a life at the age of 21. From the very beginning, he’s been focused on being accountable for that act and doing his best to make amends from behind bars. He brought that work into a design for a community center for reconciliation and wellness. It was a beautiful design, right?
So it’s this green campus filled with these circular structures for victim and offender dialogue. And when he presented the project to me, he started crying. He said, “After being in the brutality of San Quentin for so long, we don’t think reconciliation will happen. This design is for a place that fulfills the promise of restorative justice. And it feels closer now.”
I know for a fact that just the visualization of spaces for restorative justice and healing are transformative. I’ve seen it in our workshops over and over again. But I think we know that just visualizing these spaces is not enough. We have to build them. And so I started to look for justice innovators. They are not easy to find. But I found one.
I found the Center for Court Innovation. They were bringing Native American peacemaking practices into a non-Native community for the very first time in the United States. And I approached them, and I said, “OK, well, as you set up your process, could I work with the community to design a peacemaking center?” And they said yes. Thank God, because I had no backup to these guys.
And so, in the Near Westside of Syracuse, New York, we started to run design workshops with the community to both locate and reenvision an old drug house to be a peacemaking center. The Near Westside Peacemaking Project is complete. And they are already running over 80 circles a year, with a very interesting outcome, and that it is the space itself that’s convincing people to engage in peacemaking for the very first time in their lives.
Isabel and her daughter are some of those community members. And they had been referred to peacemaking to heal their relationship after a history of family abuse, sexual abuse and other issues that they’d been having in their own family and the community. And, you know, Isabel didn’t want to do peacemaking. She was like, “This is just like going to court. What is this peacemaking stuff?”
But when she showed up, she was stressed, she was anxious. But when she got in, she kind of looked around, and she settled in. And she turned to the coordinator and said, “I feel comfortable here — at ease. It’s homey.” Isabel and her daughter made a decision that day to engage and complete the peacemaking process. And today, their relationship is transformed; they’re doing really well and they’re healing.
So after this project, I didn’t go into a thing where I’m going to make a huge peacemaking center. I did want to have peacemaking centers in every community. But then a new idea emerged. I was doing a workshop in Santa Rita Jail in California, and one of our incarcerated designers, Doug, said, “Yeah, you know, repairing the harm, getting back on my feet, healing — really important. But the reality is, Deanna, when I get home, I don’t have anywhere to go. I have no job — who’s going to hire me? I’m just going to end up back here.”
And you know what, he’s right, because 60 to 75 percent of those returning to their communities will be unemployed a year after their release. We also know, if you can’t meet your basic economic needs, you’re going to commit crime — any of us would do that. So instead of building prisons, what we could build are spaces for job training and entrepreneurship. These are spaces for what we call “restorative economics.” Located in East Oakland, California, “Restore Oakland” will be the country’s first center for restorative justice and restorative economics.
So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to gut this building and turn it into three things. First, a restaurant called “Colors,” that will break the racial divide in the restaurant industry by training low-wage restaurant workers to get living-wage jobs in fine dining. It does not matter if you have a criminal record or not. On the second floor, we have bright, open, airy spaces to support a constellation of activist organizations to amplify their cry of “Healthcare Not Handcuffs,” and “Housing as a human right.”
And third, the county’s first dedicated space for restorative justice, filled with nature, color, texture and spaces of refuge to support the dialogues here. This project breaks ground in just two months. And we have plans to replicate it in Washington D.C., Detroit, New York and New Orleans.
So you’ve seen two things we can build instead of prisons. And look, the price point is better. For one jail, we can build 30 restorative justice centers. That is a better use of your tax dollars.
So I want to build all of these. But building buildings is a really heavy lift. It takes time. And what was happening in the communities that I was serving is we were losing people every week to gun violence and mass incarceration. We needed to serve more people and faster and keep them out of the system. And a new idea emerged from the community, one that was a lot lighter on its feet.
Instead of building prisons, we could build villages on wheels. It’s called the Pop-Up Resource Village, and it brings an entire constellation of resources to isolated communities in the greater San Francisco area, including mobile medical, social services and pop-up shops. And so what we’re doing now is we’re building this whole village with the community, starting with transforming municipal buses into classrooms on wheels that bring GED and high school education across turf lines.
We will serve thousands of more students with this. We’re creating mobile spaces of refuge for women released from jail in the middle of the night, at their most vulnerable. Next summer, the village will launch, and it pops up every single week, expanding to more and more communities as it goes. So look out for it.
So what do we build instead of prisons? We’ve looked at three things: peacemaking centers, centers for restorative justice and restorative economics and pop-up villages. But I’m telling you, I have a list a mile long. This is customized housing for youth transitioning out of foster care. These are reentry centers for women to reunite with their children.
These are spaces for survivors of violence. These are spaces that address the root causes of mass incarceration. And not a single one of them is a jail or a prison. Activist, philosopher, writer Cornel West says that “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
So with this in mind, I ask you one more time to imagine a world without prisons, and join me in creating all the things that we could build instead.