Advancing Corrections Through Professional Diversity

By Stephen Carter

At the end of each calendar year most of us take a few moments to reflect on lessons learned and decide if the coming year could benefit from their future applications. Since this is being written in the final days of 2023, I am permitting myself a moment to ponder just one question: were there events or actions initiated or continued in 2023 that advanced correctional planning and design which should be carried forward in 2024?

The title of the 2023 Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ) was Justice Innovations: Shifting the Paradigm. Even though in our “woke culture” I am advised that the word paradigm is outdated, I believe it was the appropriate choice for the gathering that included a diversity of stories and storytellers.

As most of you know, the AAJ (formerly the Committee on Architecture for Justice-CAJ) is a Knowledge Community within the American Institute of Architects. There are 21 such communities within the Institute covering a wide range of topics from health care to education to aging to environment, and many more. The mission of the AAJ is succinct: “to be the recognized organization that promotes excellence in the design of justice facilities.’

In the early days, the AAJ was a “committee” but has evolved into an “academy”, which, by definition is “a society or institution of distinguished scholars and artists or scientists that aims to promote and maintain standards in its particular field”. I am pleased that over a decade ago, the Committee, which implies short-term consideration of a topic, became an Academy, which implies a sustained effort to advance discourse and research surrounding a topic without a pre-ordained schedule. Initially, the membership was predominantly practicing architects but as the momentum shifted from a punitive mission inspired by wrong-headed public policy (e.g. mass incarceration) for correctional institutions to a more rehabilitative one, the membership also shifted.

This evolution was apparent at the November 2023 meeting in Washington, DC. The conference was chaired by Dr. Maryca Lopez, a lawyer and criminologist who consistently reminded us that planners and architects have a responsibility to translate the treatment mission into normative places and spaces. She was joined in organizing the conference by Dr. Robin Timme, a clinical psychologist with years of experience literally in front of incarcerated persons evaluating their specific treatment needs. The third member was Eric Zeldis, AIA who ably represented the design community which has the ultimate responsibility to translate what the criminologists and psychologists suggests are the needs.

The professional diversity within AAJ was reflected in the panel topics and the speakers. Panels on designing correctional facilities for mentally disadvantaged, addicted, and transgender persons reflecting experience from the US as well Scandinavia, Canada, and the Netherlands reinforced the belief that all correctional systems face similar challenges. Comparing approaches and design outcomes did reemphasize that for innovative outcomes, the paradigm must shift. It does take a village and can’t be left to architects to shoulder all the responsibility.

Historically, the AAJ supported a research sub-committee that sought to identify and verify an evidence basis that would underpin the design process. For many years, the focus was on the methods, materials, and means of sustainable building outcomes. This year’s conference provided the inspiration to focus future research on the design implications of behavioral health and transgender populations. Ultimately, the diverse professional representation within the Academy will influence not only policy, but codes and standards that impact the design of facilities.

I have been attending these conferences for at least 15 years and still have, and use, my notebook from the Seventh Annual Conference in Boston in 2010. If I do my math correctly, this was the 20th year of our Knowledge Community. The planning and design contributions from our members are apparent from coast to coast and, I submit, were influenced in part by the collaboration available within the network. So, again, a debt of gratitude to Maryca, Robin, Eric, and Bruce Bland from then AIA who provided us with a place and space to be motivated for the year ahead.

This article is being written in the waning days of 2023 for publication in early 2024. As a gross understatement, we live in divisive, troubling, and very uncertain times. Too often, we are tempted to add hopelessness to the list. But one of the advantages of more than five decades in the planning for correctional environments is the inspiration that is derived from observing emerging professionals across many disciplines project optimism and imagination through their collaborative work. Let’s use that spark to continue shifting the paradigm ever more towards greater dignity and humaneness; especially in the places of incarceration. Happy and Hopeful New Year.

Stephen Carter, AICP
December 6, 2023

Stephen Carter, AICP is the executive vice president and global strategic development officer at Miami-based CGL Companies.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Correctional News.