Students and Inmates Collaborate on Construction Project

AMES, Iowa — Students from Iowa State University’s Department of Landscape Architecture teamed up with inmates at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) in Mitchellville to construct a set of classrooms on the ICIW campus. These multipurpose outdoor classrooms will be located in the center of the new 30-acre campus.

The classrooms are meant to be a place for offenders, counselors and prison staff to take classes, counseling and vocational training in a restorative and healing environment. The project was part of a $68 million budget to expand and modernize the facility. Other aspects of the plan include an overarching landscape master plan designed by the Iowa State students.

Director of Iowa Department of Corrections John Baldwin said in a recent statement that he anticipates the project will “become a national model for bringing humane and therapeutic landscapes into a very restrictive environment.”

ICIW Warden Patti Wachtendorf agreed: “The environment we give the women makes a difference in their attitudes and mentality,” she said.

The goal of the project is to produce a comfortable environment that will promote healing and help the women stay out of prison once they are released.

The ICIW project is the product of two years’ work from fourth- and fifth-year students in Assistant Professor Julie Stevens’ landscape architecture studio classes at Iowa State. Stevens and her students collaborated with ICIW administrators, project architects and offenders and staff at the prison.

The students’ master plan includes five unique spaces such as a visitor courtyard, a mother-child garden and a deck where officers can take breaks. The central classroom in the plan is the largest, featuring tiered bench seating that accommodates 100 people and a stage for lectures, graduation ceremonies and community theater productions. A typical 30-person classroom sits next to the large central room, as does a multipurpose room that can be used for small group gatherings or counseling sessions.

Working on the project provided ISU students with valuable hands-on experience they can bring with them to jobs after graduating. Colten McDermott, a senior in the department, commented on his experience in a recent statement: “We’ve really learned how design translates into construction. It’s helped us think about how something will be experienced. This really helps us understand the construction process and how to make needed changes and adjustments in the design as we go along.”

ISU’s industrial design students helped with the project as well, designing chairs desks with rotating desktops that allow users to face different directions based on the position of the sun.

Six offenders from Newton Correctional Release Center-Minimum Security’s work release program worked alongside students on the construction project. Working alongside offenders gave the students an opportunity to communicate with them on a personal level and see them as potential future employees rather than as lawbreakers alone. It also gives the offenders a chance to give back to the community and help ease their transition back into life outside of prison.

The classrooms are located next to the ICIW’s Building 9 Treatment Center, where 96 women undergo intensive treatment for abuse, addition, self-esteem issues and mental health issues. The patients at this center can use the outdoor classrooms as a healing and restorative center to aid in the recovery process.

The new ICIW campus is set to open in the fall of 2013.