Justice Superheroes Endure the Test of Time

Building Deep Relationships and Offering Fresh Vision to the A/E/C Correctional Arena

Correctional News sat down Justice League style for a dialogue with some of the leading female justice designers in the country — and just like how female superheroes surfaced from the colored panels of DC and Marvel — these women are emerging on the correctional and civic structure landscape. Leaving their mark, not just as designers of secure facilities, but as people who can create dialogue about the changing landscape of the United States’ A/E/C justice arena — and build lasting relationships. From the private sector to county, state or federal agencies, these superheroes are sure to be welcomed wherever they may land.

Su Cunningham, Vice President, Heery International
Who were some of your mentors and role models when you got into the justice field?
That is kind of two part for me. I started in juvenile corrections in the state of Texas and worked for juvenile and adult corrections there up until early 1986 is when I got involved in the private sector and went to work for HDR. My major mentors were not necessarily other females but they were men who were very progressive — our juvenile director in Texas was amazing and he said you are going to get involved in ACA and created some opportunities for us. There had been some women, more our peers who supported each other. Back in the mid 1970s, there were some women who worked in corrections but not a lot of them. They had fought that good ol’ boy network for so long that they had gotten frustrated trying to deal with it. When you come from Texas, you’re so used to the Good ol‘ boy network and you learn how to work within it.
In the private sector, when I went to work for HDR there were a couple of guys that recognized the value of networking and they stepped back and gave us the support, which allowed us to move forward.
I have worked with three companies since 1986 — HDR, then Fluor Daniel and Heery. The landscape has changed so dramatically in that time period.

How women are emerging more and more in the industry?
When I was appointed to the parole board in Texas in 1982 there was a female parole board member but it was a separate agency than the prison system. Women were not allowed to work in our prisons. The state lost a major federal lawsuit about a year later and started hiring females. That totally changed the environment of corrections at every level.

Where do you see the industry in five to 10 years? Not just in terms of gender.
I think that when we talk about sensitivity, it’s the recognition that some things aren’t going to change; some things are going to change but maybe not as much as we would hope, and some things will never change. Having that perspective allows us to deal with it and make it work.

What projects are you currently working on?
We’re spending time right now doing client nurturing, where we’re spending time on projects that went on hold. It’s giving us time to do that problem solving and help these clients, kind of walk them through. So when the money comes back we walk back in to those projects. We’re working on a new prison in Pennsylvania, SCI Phoenix, and we’re very proud of that.

What one thing are you most proud of?
We’ve just finished the Iowa Correctional Center for women, in Mitchellville, Iowa. It’s a historic facility that started as a juvenile facility, and the project is an expansion/renovation. One of my very best friends was a woman named Susan Hunter. Her first job was as a warden in Mitchellville. She died about five years ago. Everyday on this site, working with this project team, almost took my breath away. I walked outside the chapel where we met, looked up and there was her memorial garden. To me, because of that connection, the personal and professional, all of a sudden it came together. It was like I was making a contribution to something that meant the world to her.

Beverly Prior, FAIA, Principal, Justice Practice Leader, HMC Architects
What are you currently working on?
Right now we are working on the San Diego County Women’s Detention Facility that is in construction documents, Tuolumne County Juvenile Hall, Monterey County Juvenile Hall, and Marin County Emergency Operations Facility projects.

How is it for you being a woman in this field?
In 1999, I was the chair of the Academy of Architecture for Justice Conference. It was called Justice in the New Millennium. Since I was the chair I got to determine what the different sessions were going to be. So I had one that was called “What’s A Nice Person like You Doing in a Career like This?” I had Su Cunningham on the panel and I had some men as well. So it’s been a question for me in my career: why am I doing this work? Many architects say, I don’t do that kind of work.

For me, the “why”, has evolved over time. It started out that I liked the client type. I liked the challenge of how you have to think about security perimeters and the geometries, how you make things work. I liked that as a young architect. Then over time, it has evolved for me as seeing justice planning and design as a way to help people, as I way to help communities. I think of it as a bigger societal opportunity. So then it makes it more meaningful for me. I still like the other aspects: I like the people and the operations and all that technical thinking, but even more I like thinking about how these kinds of facilities contribute to our economy, our society and how it all works together. A great example of the greater community and economic scale is the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, which received LEED Gold. It had a lot of interesting community concerns with it – Books Not Bars pushed them to reduce the number of beds, and at the same time, the county has done a huge amount of outreach to community groups and program providers to engage with the youth and their families.

Do you feel like there are more women in corrections now?
There are more women in planning and design, and there are more women on the institution side. So it is evolving in a lot of ways. When I started, the role model for me was Su Cunningham. She was so active and such a high-profile person. When I think about the people you are interviewing, the fact that she is part of it is really cool.

Do you have any interesting stories about being a woman in corrections that you want to share?
When I worked on the California Department of Corrections’ Wasco Reception Center in the early 80s, one of our clients on the corrections side was a woman. And I remember, at that point, being really impressed when we toured an occupied state prison — my first time in an occupied one — that she looked every inmate in the eye, she knew many of them, and she connected with them as people. I wonder if on the operations side, women have a humanizing impact on corrections.

Did you ever face any disadvantages on the project?
I could think of it as a disadvantage to be a woman but I could also think of it as an advantage, because I stand out. You can look at anything as a disadvantage or an advantage, so I choose to look at it as advantage positive distinction and have fun with it.

April Pottorff, AIA, Principal, RicciGreene Associates
Who were some of your mentors when you started?
As an architecture student, I did not have that long-term vision that this is where I would end up. What I did know was that I was interested in institutional-level type of buildings — at that point I envisioned education or health care. I met Frank Greene in Central Park while playing in an architectural softball league and he mentioned they were hiring for justice work. I thought that’s interesting and that’s all she wrote. Ken Ricci has been a great mentor. Collectively, at RicciGrenne, it is a collaboration, all of us thinking about the issues related to justice, anticipating the next generation of issues to be ready for, and learning from what has been done in the past.

What changes have you seen since the time you started in justice?
When I was in architecture school the percentage of students that were female was — around 25 percent. At this point more than 50 percent of the architects are female. Things have changed. I don’t see myself as a female architect who happens to specialize in justice. I see myself as an architect that is an expert in corrections that happens to be female. For me it is about credibility — it is how you present yourself and that you are knowledgeable.

What projects are you currently working on?
I have a needs assessment in Muscogee County, Ga., and a master plan for the City of Columbus, Ohio, municipal court’s existing courthouse underway. We recently completed the Franklin County, Ohio, courthouse.
When working in Merrimack County, N.H., where I served as owner’s rep, and I also conducted a jail needs assessment — the jail director, county administrator, and two of the three commissioners were female. The county administrator is still a friend. That project was completed in 2005 and we still keep in touch. She is a very smart lady [Kathleen Bateson].
I have wonderful relationships with many of my former clients.

We also have a project on Rikers Island — a new 1,500-bed facility. We are currently in the site selection phase. Previously we were working on the renovation and expansion of the Brooklyn House of Detention. The existing facility is located on a major pedestrian and commercial thoroughfare. The program calls for adding 750 beds for a total of 1,500 beds. How to integrate the new with the existing presented some real operational and programmatic complexities — all while making it a good neighbor. The existing jail is a dead zone within an otherwise active street. Our proposed design activated the street level by introducing retail. The project recently received a NYC-AIA design award in the unbuilt work category.
Brooklyn represented part of what I love about our detention work — creating jails that are civic, urban buildings. Although I am trained as an architect, I have my masters degree is in urban design. Brooklyn was about both. We transformed it from a NIMBY to a YIMBY.

Tamara Clarke, Principal, DLR Group
What are you currently working on?
Two of five high-profile renewable energy projects for a client utilizing photovoltaics. As an employee-owner of DLR Group, I believe in Architecture 2030 and the 2030 Challenge. As an architect, I see the importance of applying leadership in our role of crafting the built environment. This client is leading the way in changing how people think about and use energy.

What, if any, were challenges you had to face entering the field?
Being taken seriously as an architectural graduate working for a small design firm and not just the Girl Friday answering phones, managing accounts, drafting, and observing construction sites. Being exposed to so many aspects of the profession in the early stages of my career gave me a sincere respect for each participant’s contribution to great design.

How did you fall into corrections work?
I joined DLR Group in 1999 after working on a large casino/hotel in Las Vegas, Nev. Surprisingly, casinos and hotels have many similarities with jails and detention facilities. Security/surveillance technology is identical, and jails can be viewed as another version of lodging. Instead of being four-diamond or five-star, many sheriffs would prefer to view jails as no-star, especially Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio. DLR Group was selected in 1999 to design Maricopa County’s Lower Buckeye Jail and Central Services Facilities, one of the country’s largest county jails incorporating three separately operated facilities into one mega structure adjacent to the Central Services Facility, which still provides food, laundry, and warehousing services for the entire Maricopa County adult and juvenile inmate populations.

Who were your role models when you entered the corrections’ field?
Russ (Slug) Martin who was formerly employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and at the time I joined DLR Group, our in-house specialist in detention hardware and security electronics. David Boehm, senior principal and DLR Group’s National Justice+Civic Forum Leader and Bryce Pearsall, FAIA, managing principal, a lead designer for numerous correctional facilities, and major advocate for sustainable design

Any advice for women looking to enter the field?
Go for it! Never hold back.

Catherine Chan, AIA, Director of Justice, HOK
What are your thought about women in the justice environment?
I think we make a good difference. The clients and project teams actually welcome different perspectives from women. On top of that, women generally pay closer attention to details. The teams appreciate the “change of tone” or “a breath of fresh air”.

What advice would you give to other women who work in the correctional field?
People are judging you on the things you do, not the way you look. We just have to keep working in the right direction to gain their confidence and trust from them. There is a subtle preconception about gender, or even about age. I think it is human nature. People probably are looking for proof from you, and if you get easily intimidated and don’t speak up, they will think of you less. If you keep your focus, people usually enjoy having a female partner, recognize you as different but welcome your participation. At the same time, we should also encourage the young professionals coming in. It’s part of the natural advancement; no matter they are male or female.

What changes have you seen since the time you started in justice?
Not everything bears a gender specific tag to it. In professional organization like AIA that I’m heavily involved in, we are starting to get much more female participation at the leadership level. In fact, we currently have three women out of five members on the AG [Advisory Group] for AAJ [Academy of Architecture for Justice] so things are definitely changing. I believe, as long as we keep bringing in creative ideas, know our stuff, things will change for the better. From time to time, you can sense that there are little differences made because of the great work which women do.

What projects are you currently working on?
I have been actively working on the Claybank Adult Detention Facility for Solano County. It is out to bid right now and scheduled to go into construction late July. This project is funded by AB900 funding. So is another project by our Los Angeles office currently under construction in Adelanto for San Bernardino County. We also just got selected for the San Mateo County Jail project that we are just beginning on program verification. That is an interesting project with a very progressive client. We are also waiting to start on the Dewitt Nelson Conversion project in Stockton around summer.

What one thing are you most proud of in your professional career?
The relationships, the special personal connections I have made throughout my career, because I’m a very personal person. Perhaps being a woman does make a difference. The most unforgettable thing is receiving a handwritten note from my client who took the time to send in his appreciation for my hard work for a project two weeks before he passed away. That was a precious friendship that I am very proud of.