How a group of architects is working toward restorative justice

This week, I was on a panel about solitary confinement at the "Architecture for Social Justice" national conference. The conference was for Academy of Architecture for Justice, the subgroup of the American Institute of Architects that designs courthouses, jails, prisons, police headquarters, etc. The focus was not on technical design specifications, but on "restorative justice models and their positive outcomes in court, mental health care, social services, law enforcement and corrections practices and the buildings designed to reflect these practices." That's from the introduction by the conference chairs.

On my panel, "Towards Guidelines for Segregated Housing," I was the social activist, describing Missouri administrative segregation, which is not really solitary confinement and which I've blogged about here. An architect and the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction also spoke. The last panelist, Brian Nelson, spent 12 years in solitary confinement at Tamms Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Illinois, for refusing to be a "stool pigeon." His description of the space he lived in and the experience of total isolation chilled us all.

The panel convener, Raphael Sperry, wants the American Institute of Architects to say that building solitary confinement units is unethical. And he is not alone. The architects who sat at our lunch table all design structures for corrections, law enforcement and the courts, and they want their product used to enhance restorative justice.

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It made me recall my moral theology studies, where I memorized retributive justice (punishment), distributive justice (sharing the benefits and losses), and restorative justice (the harm done is addressed and efforts are made to put things right).

Other conference sessions included "Stakeholder Engagement in the Creation of Humane and Restorative Correctional Spaces," "Safe Public Spaces: Encouraging Positive Social Behaviors Through Design," and "Mental Health Delivery within a Secure Environment." These practical applications of the principles of restorative justice demonstrate the grounding one would hope for from a group of architects -- but it never occurred to me they were doing work like this.

I came home deeply moved by serious commitment of these architects to building a better world. They understand the power of their role, and they stand committed to restorative justice.


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