Thoughts on Planning, Programming & Designing Indian Country Detention Facilities

I joined Justice Solutions Group (JSG) two years ago to see how my 44 years of architectural experience might be helpful when applied to Indian Country justice center designs. While all tribes have unique cultural aspects I’ve learned that a common theme is their belief that the family has an integral part in the process of returning offenders to their communities as healthy human beings.

JSG has been providing Native American tribes its expertise for over a decade with services such as: Justice Systems Planning, Facility Planning, and Transition and Activation Services. What interests me most as an architect is planning, programming and designing facilities that not only meet a client’s specific expectations while providing unique building design solutions for each tribe.

Justice Systems Planning

From this architect’s perspective shared with many of my former clients, the initial phase of a project is the most critical in achieving success as determined by the appropriate number of beds and services needed. This is the foundation from which all other decisions are based and is essential to a successful master plan.

Determining the appropriate number and type of beds should be based on the analysis of data during the needs assessment phase, vs. those desired. This can become a daunting challenge for any architect. Tribes often base their bed space needs on current conditions, not factoring in the potential impact of an effective court system, alternatives to incarceration or aftercare programs. In addition, drug and alcohol abuse programs can impact an incarcerated population with significant results in behavioral change and lead to reduced recidivism. The interior environment plays another important role in behavioral change, which will be discussed later in this report.

Many tribal courts and police departments do not possess records of arrests, convictions and/or recidivism. Many times plans for population capacities are intuitive reactions to current conditions. This lack of data often results in an approach for planning Indian Country facilities.

Facility Planning

As previously stated one of the most critical factors in planning and programming a detention facility is determining the appropriate types and number of beds. As most jail administrators know, the planning and design through construction phases of a project amount to only approximately 10 percent of the total cost to operate a facility over a 30 year period. Another important consideration in the planning of housing units is that approximately 10 percent of those incarcerated are violent offenders and therefore require separation from the general population. This statistic can lead to reducing the number of hard cells which are the most costly to build.

One of the significant differences in designing an Indian Country detention facility is the challenge of incorporating a tribe’s cultural values & symbols. This can be two-fold in nature: physical symbolism can be applied to interior spaces and the exterior architecture and a variety of programs can be provided to detainees that are specific to their culture.

As stated above symbolism can play an important role in the design elements of a facility. The compass points represent a tradition of values indigenous to Native people. They often have different meanings and color order but are significant in that they represent particular points of view about their heritage and beliefs. The following represents just a few variations on the theme of the Medicine Wheel:

The White North = Wisdom
Wisdom is often gained through winter stories; offering cleansing, purifying and strengthening power; the white eagle is also associated with this direction and it is said that those who have a vision of the white eagle become healers.

The Red East = Enlightenment
It is a place where peace, light and new life rise up each day. Blood and birth are from the east; the spotted eagle, being all these things, represents this direction and its feathers are said to bring insight and vision.

The Yellow South = Innocence
One sees the sun that is strongest when facing this direction; it is a representative bird like its golden eagle that stands for the peak of life, warmth, understanding and ability.

The Black West = Power
This is a place where the rain originates and is a place that represents the end, or finality, as things done in the dark are final things; the bald eagle is associated with this direction.

The colors of the medicine often change places too, and in some instances are rotated 45 degrees. The following are a few representative medicine wheels:

Regarding programs, a “healing room” can combine symbolism and function with its circular form in the floor plan and its program used to help residents understand the importance of their tribal history and family participation in the treatment of their sons and daughters.

The healing room is generally of a similar size to that of a tipi (22’-25’ in diameter) and provides for seating around its inner perimeter. The focus of the space is toward the center where a speaker may discuss history, culture and teachings of tribal lore through stories passed down from generation to generation. It can also be used for family gatherings and guest speakers.

The center of the circle often incorporates a skylight pointing toward the “Heavens” and “the Creator”. A window is often included that faces east to introduce the “morning light” into the space. This symbolism reflects the belief of many tribes that the “rising sun” is a source of renewal.

With regard to the specific design of housing units, I have found that smaller rather than larger sizes are more manageable for Indian Country detainees. In some ways, juvenile facility designs with smaller housing units might also more appropriately apply to adult populations as well. For example, a housing unit that is designed to hold a maximum number of detainees, let’s say around 32 beds could be planned for full occupancy. One jail administrator preferred to have the facility designed to initially hold only 16 residents but provided for expansion through double bunking the cells and/or small dormitory units as future needs might arise. The size of a housing unit would need to comply with Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building standards regarding all areas of a housing unit: cells/dorms; dayrooms; showers/lavatory/toilets; dayrooms; and exterior exercise yards.

This approach would provide Indian Country facilities with a “built-in” first expansion opportunity by just adding additional bunks without adding significant construction dollars. First costs would be initially a bit higher due to the slight increase in the size of area requirements; however, with the limitations on future funding it provides “master planning” in a meaningful way specific to Indian Country.

Transition and Activation Planning

The importance of this phase of the project cannot be overemphasized. For the best results in operating a facility, a transition team should be assembled early in the design process to make certain that staff is informed regarding future operational policies and procedures. It is also vitally important that the staff participate in the planning, programming and design phases. JSG has produced a publication that provides a step-by-step process for use by a tribe for the transition and activation plan entitled Facility Activation Planning Guide.
With the technological advances in architectural computer-drafting software programs, 3D modeling of specific spaces of a facility can be produced to provide visual understanding of areas. This can often help support the development of the transition and activation planning team, which will also aid in developing policies and procedures.
The 3D model can also be designed to produce a “virtual reality tour” walk-through of an entire facility long before it is built. Some clients prefer foam core or Plexiglas scaled physical models of a facility and/or specific areas such as housing. While these models may be low-tech they do provide an instant review of proposed interior spaces.

New Facility Design

Here is one example of an adult detention facility design that incorporated both the “circle” and “morning star” theme as most important to the client tribe.

This tribe also supported their first expansion needs for beds in- place without the need for additional construction. The housing unit below illustrates a distribution of both mini-dormitory cells (4-8 occupants) and individual cells (1-2 occupants) while providing the required sizes and fixtures (toilet, lavatory, and shower) for a fully occupied unit.

Other Native American Facilities Concepts

For one tribe the Hogan was of particular significance and they asked their architect to provide a floor plan and physical shape that respected this cultural element.

For another tribe the healing room was of special importance and they positioned it upfront in their Justice Complex to use as a “Community Room”.


In closing, the areas that are particular to Indian Country design that most resonate with me are as follows:

Smaller facilities
Smaller sized housing units
Direct supervision operations
Environment as a therapeutic tool affecting behavioral change
Natural light is special to Native People as it represents “the elements” Circular and morning star shaped spaces are significant to many cultures representing the bringing together of families
Family intervention is long-held tradition that is important to Indian culture and rehabilitative process
Alcohol and drug treatment programs within a facility are critical to changing detainee behavior
Aftercare programs are essential to maintain contact with released offenders
Many tribes include sweat lodges to help heal the body and mind; it also a place for Native American song and personal prayer.

Finally, let me suggest to planners and architects that they pay special attention to the needs of the tribes they are servicing to provide design solutions that are specific to their individual cultures.

The following was taken from a Justice Solutions Group PACIFIC (Planning Alternatives for Correctional Facilities in Indian Country) Workshop.

%d bloggers like this: