Trendspotting: To the Higher Ground

Most of us were at our day job (and glad to have one) in mid-October when cable TV channels devoted up to 50 percent of their broadcast to tracking a helium-filled balloon across Colorado while anxiously wondering if Falcon Heenes was on board. Thankfully, he was not. 

Pardon my sarcasm, but what might have made this event newsworthy would have been to learn that Richard and Mayumi had asked Jon and Kate to join them in an alternate celestial location. 

The after-event coverage of this publicity stunt illustrated how conflicted we are becoming in distinguishing the difference between the common ground and high ground. Discussion of this dilemma is a slippery slope because it engenders notions of elitism and pietism, but the current public debate on healthcare reform, global warming, executive pay, and the like has illustrated the risks of seeking consensus.  

Writing recently for the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier spoke of the challenge for politicians to differentiate a politically popular decision from an evidenced-based decision. Note his words:

“The demotion of human rights by the common-ground presidency is absolutely incomprehensible. The common ground is not always the high ground. When it is without end, moreover, the search for common ground is bad for bargaining. It informs the other side that what you desire is the deal — that you will never acknowledge the finality of the difference, and never be satisfied with the integrity of opposition. There is a reason that ‘uncompromising’ is a term of approbation.”

The article is a sober discussion of the perils of a well-intended decision-making process based on compromise rather than leadership. I use this auspicious quote not as a criticism of this, or any national administration, but as an indication of the impact always seeking the common ground has on a quest for creative solutions, especially in corrections.

Whether we are considering governing, choosing, designing, operating, or financing, the scramble for consensus has brought correctional design and operations to a new level of mediocrity.

Living life, even in a free democracy, is an exercise in compromise, as it should be. Observing the way decisions are being reached in our switched-on, forever-connected society suggests that we begin, rather than end, the complicated process of deciding by singing “Kum Ba Yah.” A quick glimpse in the rearview mirror of past correctional practices reveals an acceptance of the common ground of consensus rather than the solitude of creativity.

Permanent residency seems to have been deeded to common-ground squatters that resolve complex design and operational decisions by personal opinion. Elected officials are often appointed to, or assume, this position by virtue of an opinion rather than analysis that considers the expertise and the evidence-based experiences of others.

The shove by the Academy of Architecture for Justice toward evidenced-based design decisions should be welcomed, yet the majority of the architect’s choices remain those acceptable to a vocal individual or a committee unwilling to embrace conflict as a part of the creative process.

I admit this grounding to me is like fingernails on an antique chalkboard. How often is the design of a jail based exclusively on the opinion of an elected official that has only seen another jail in a made-for-TV movie?  

Accreditation and Fear

Achieving ACA accreditation is an example of striving for the common ground. Each convening of the ACA Standards Committee is a convention of compromise.

The over-worked, no-compensation, commissioners devote hours listening to jurisdictions rationalize why they can’t achieve a documented standard, but deserve accreditation. What is so hard to understand about 35 unencumbered square feet, or 45 decibels, or natural light?

Occupying the high ground would entail offending a paying constituency. No disrespect to the dedication of the commissioners, but some jurisdictions should be told to spend their money visiting facilities with examples of best practice rather than insult the accreditation process by attempting to tunnel under the higher ground.  

When design decisions are made through the “because I say so” model, the real motivation is a fear of an “above the fold” headline. How many stories about corrections, and especially new approaches to correcting, begin with a negative headline? Bond issues routinely fail because of the media’s interpretation of need or intent.

I remember too well a Times magazine article on a Boston jail that coined the phrase “glamour slammer.” Never mind that the facility was the evidenced-based result of years of litigation and is located along one of the most beautiful rivers in North America. Public opinion was melded by a headline. Elected officials who govern by fear of headlines make incredibly poor decision-makers.

Over a 30-year debt amortization period, the annual cost difference between a 64-bed dormitory housing unit and a 32 cell, double-occupied housing unit is $70,369. Staffing may be the same for either unit, but ask any officer after supervising inmates for a 12-hour shift which design arrangement is preferable, or how many assaults occurred, and the 70 grand may seem like a bargain. 

We too often allow choices of operational models and design solutions to be driven by a shortsighted return on investment. The lonely occupant of the high ground instinctively has only the satisfaction of a more strategic understanding of calculus.

Doing time is not a consensus sanction. It’s real time in a real place with real people for both sinners and supervisors. Yet the process of defining the configuration and conditions of the place and space has become so defined by an abdication to consensus-building, rather than informed leadership, that rarely does a correctional facility tour exclude the phrase “what could the architect have been thinking.”  

Those responsible for the planning, design, construction, operation and financing of correctional facilities have the ethical responsibility to at least expose decision-makers to the rarified, but refreshing, atmosphere of the higher ground. Up, up, and away.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.