Sagacious | Fighting the Good Fight

I spent the better part of last year managing the design of a jail renovation and expansion. My firm partnered with a detention center specialist and advocate for prison reform to provide repairs, rectify functional issues, and expand the facility to provide much needed amenities and resources.

It’s been my first and so far only exposure to the harsh realities of incarceration. The project’s intent is humanitarian, and my sojourn into this world is to do good for the duration and scope that my role allows.

“God grant me serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Over the course of several months I went through different stages of learning, acceptance, articulation, and advocacy,

  • learning the gritty realities of incarceration and this facility’s needs;
  • coming to understand the emotional toll, knowing when to embrace the project, and when to hold it at arm’s length;
  • developing the language to articulate these challenges,
  • and taking ownership of the project and project leadership.

Learning The Highest Aim

First came learning about the existing facility – its history, ambitions, and shortcomings. I had never set eyes on a jail before, let alone entered one, and never imagined how cold a facility could be when constructed entirely of CMU block walls, with limited or no natural light, and sagging discolored ceiling panels long overdue for replacement.

Then I had to acknowledge what’s really at stake. These inmates were here for a wide variety of crimes; a set of dorms houses “low risk” trustees who can work in the kitchens, or laundry, with short sentences for misdemeanors. Another housing block is set for medium security, and another for high security, including rapists and murderers, among others; preparing for the incarceration of the most dangerous and violent inmates means understanding the potential of every object as a weapon.

  • Glass? Shards become knives.
  • Small gap between the light and the ceiling? A hidden stash for a smuggled razor blade.
  • Handrail? The support for a desperate inmate’s noose.

This kind of work can take the mind to dark, dark places. Safety is a huge concern, which can mean the cost of warmth and gentleness in the design because the worst-case risk is a reality. Solid piece stainless steel forms with rounded edges and no removeable parts is standard.

There’s also PREA compliance (the Prison Rape Elimination Act). One of my most challenging moments involved explaining to a room full of mostly male colleagues why some designs would be less likely to enable rape than others, through balancing the need for privacy with the unacceptable danger of blocked lines of sight. I found that after an initial conversation I could intuit which schemes met this criteria, and after a lengthy discussion with my team realized that many of my colleagues have lived their whole lives oblivious to this kind of risk. In fairness, as had I with so many other aspects of jail design.

Emotionally unprepared, on a few early occasions, I left the office in tears at day’s end.

The highest aim of a detention center is to tend to the inmates such that they are better for their time served there. Better – because they have been provided the resources to transform themselves and re-enter society as a positive contributor.

That requires a facility of dignity and safety, with resources to address physical and behavioral health issues.
That’s a lot to ask of a jail or prison that was designed without modern standards of humanity and has been underfunded for maintenance ever since.
This project is also massive, and massively complicated.

Acceptance | Alignment of Values

During the learning process, a greater struggle set in: wrestling with internal ethical conflicts regarding the work.

Photographs of the existing conditions were heart wrenching. Broken water softeners means the facility only has hard water, the grimy residue corroding the shower floors; rusted pipes leak through the facility, indicated by stained and sagging ceilings; poor site drainage means each time a heavy rain falls, water seeps into the building, with photos showing standing water inside some inmate housing. I felt sick reading through the initial assessment report. I considered asking to leave the project, but wanted to first do my due diligence to understand it. I’m glad that I did; once I understood the project’s aims, largely through the detention consultant’s sincere desire to improve the facility for inmates and staff alike, I committed to seeing the project through design, and do my best to treat it with compassion.

Even so, I dreaded my first site visit. It’s ironic, in retrospect, because walking the site in person and meeting the client face-to-face for the first time was a sincere turning point in my experience. Yes, it’s true that the facility is in desperate need of an upgrade, but this was outshined by the staff’s high standard of care. In addition to viewing their character with my own eyes, I also learned that typically, inmates try to transfer from county-run facilities to state-run ones, due to the better funding and generally higher standards of care. This facility, however, was the exception. Despite being county-run, inmates here try their best not to be transferred away.

This demonstrated a clear alignment of values with the client and an admiration of their strength to uphold their principles so steadfastly. It also added clarity of purpose: it was high time for the facility to elevate to the same standard of care the client was already providing.

Articulation | Developing a New Language

The way we speak is part of the way we understand and handle issues. This humanitarian and compassionate approach to detention design requires terminology to match.

  • “housing”, not “jail cells”
  • “inmate population”, not “prisoners”
  • “special management”, not “disabled and mentally handicapped”

Language can also determine if we are holding the issue close or at arm’s length – and sometimes I needed that distance, to keep from becoming emotionally overwhelmed and depressed. This meant using more obscuring language, like using acronyms instead of full descriptions, or unfamiliar technical terms like “anti ligature” (look this up at your own risk – the implications aren’t pretty.)

What helped even more, though, was hearing other folks speak on the topic, including this quality and candid podcast discovered by one of my teammates:

Ear Hustle
Ear Hustle brings you stories of life inside prison, shared and produced by those living it.

Real stories, real voices, and tales that span from the coarse and gruesome to the heartwarming and hilarious. Listening to this podcast reguarly gave me another layer of insight, and through hearing these folks discuss their stories I learned to better articulate mine. It was at this point that, for the first time, I started feeling comfortable talking to friends and family about the work I was doing, because I finally understood how to do so.

Advocacy | Ownership and Engagement

After time listening and learning, I found my own voice when leading my team. In addition to managing and general leadership, I saw the importance of reiterating the humanity we had the potential, and obligation, to instill.

“There’s a lot of services in the ceiling above that corridor – from an engineer’s perspective, we wouldn’t mind if there weren’t any skylights.”
“If you were working there, you would care very much.”

I commute to work by train, which means I recognize (and am recognized by) the other regulars.

One day another regular sat down across from me and struck up a conversation. I complimented his tattoos – he had two elaborate sleeves – and he mentioned he got them while in prison. The artist had ink, a guitar string, and a makeshift mallet, and tchk-tchk-tchk, hammered each puncture by hand.

This piqued my interest, and I told him about my work. I asked if he would be comfortable telling me about his experiences in prison. After a moment of surprise he was eager to do so.

“At first I was fast just so scared, my heart was beating so fast, I felt sick. But once I got into the day room, it wasn’t so bad, because I recognized so many people from my neighborhood growing up.”

That broke my heart, but the truth is nothing new – incarceration does not affect all communities equally. Through racial, socioeconmic, and other systemic biases, his demographic is particularly hard hit.

He then described the violence; the codes of honor; the precautions he took for his safety; how proud he is to lead a different life now that allows him to support his family.

I asked him, if he could change something about prison to make it better, what would it be?

“That’s a hella hard question, miss.”
But after a while, he told me, counseling and other mental health support. I asked, do you think folks would actually use these services if they were more readily available?
“Definitely. Everyone there needs them.”

It is good to know that through our design of a new behavioral health wing, that we are helping to make this happen.

Props to my colleagues – especially my amazing detention consultant with a spine of steel and a heart of gold – who fight the good fight every day. For me, the future of my work in this realm is unknown, but as we say with my team at every obstacle, success, or turn:


Adjacent the Oregon Trail, 2018

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