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Why Utah's new prison design is cutting edge

Utah’s current prison in Draper is steel gray and massive inside. As if from a scene in a dystopian film, long rows of clamorous cell blocks recede into the distance with four vertigo-inducing levels of cells hovering overhead, all lit with harsh fluorescent lights.

The state's new prison, however, will look very different, starting with a more human scale, according to planners. Smaller units set on just two floors will all open onto a day room. Cells will be angled to capture natural light from large windows in the commons area with colored walls, while windowed doors on cells replace gray steel bars.

Scheduled to open near the Salt Lake Airport in 2020, the new 4,000-bed prison will also function very differently from the facility it replaces. And while much remains to be determined, the watchwords of “humane” and “normalizing” are guiding the way, say the architects, designers and corrections officials planning the new facility.

These changes are only part of the story of how the new facility is being designed to further the state's Justice Reinvestment Initiative, launched in 2015 to reduce incarceration levels by changing the lives of inmates. The initiative calls for better educational and occupational programs, and these, too, are part of the design.

Preliminary, conceptual sketch of the zones for the new Utah State Prison. Purple and Blue represent two separated general prison populations. Bluish Green is therapeutic communities. Pink is the women's prison. Yellow is maximum security, and true green is the reentry preparation facility. The gray areas contain administrative, health services, recreation and classroom space. Since this sketch was drawn the distribution of these units within the larger prison have moved considerably. New sketches are due in April. | Kevin Miller, GSBS Architects

Utah's prison, notes Stephen Carter, founder and vice president at CGL, the Florida-based consulting firm that helped plan the new Utah facility, is part of an evolving worldwide discourse on prison design. Where past generations of prisons sought to warehouse inmates with token efforts at reform, the new generation puts successful transitions to society as the top priority. This means changes in look and feel, as well as in programs offered and the attitudes of staff and correctional officers.

The radical theory of the new prisons is that inmates who live in a normal environment adjust more quickly to normal life upon release. It begins with architecture — including the experiences of light, sound, color, better noise control and more natural views in yards and through windows.

But the new thinking also extends to personal, eating and sleeping spaces, exercise, interaction with prison staff, routines of learning and work, and more natural movement through a community.

“If we start with the stereotypes that prisoners are evil monsters who deserve penal hell holes, we’ll take the same failed approach, but if we design prisons that look more like colleges, then we can start seeing prisoners as people with potential," said Yvonne Jewkes, a criminologist at the University of Brighton in the U.K. and a key voice in the emerging international conversation on prison design.

That community of experts will be closely watching Utah's new prison, one of the largest and most ambitious projects to date. Utah new facility is, quite literally, the "next big thing," the boldest effort to date to combine a massive, centralized facility with the new principles of prison design.

Not everyone will agree about the results, and some experts are already arguing that Utah could be even more bold in smoothing the path to change and recovery.

Light, space, color

While details remain in flux, the new prison's planners say they expect the Utah facility to lean heavily on recent “best in class” models that emphasize more natural scale, color and light.

One inspiration for Utah’s new design is the Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in San Diego County, California, which opened in 2014. Las Colinas feels like a very nice college campus, with large windows, cheerful interior color schemes, noise proofing, and murals on the walls.

Outside, Las Colinas sports walkways through lawns with natural landscaping, hedges and trees. There is even an outdoor amphitheater. Landscaping required special consideration, Carter said, noting, for instance, they had to make sure the mulch was chopped finely enough that its shards could not serve as weapons.

Carter was heavily involved with Las Colinas from the beginning, working with San Diego County as early as 1999 on its master plan, and then returning to help the county frame its proposal for a cutting-edge facility for women.

“We translate policy, space and behavior into architecture,” Carter said, describing his company’s role.

He worked with San Diego officials and KMD and HMC, two nationally prominent architectural firms, to develop concepts that allow the women to “develop a daily routine, take responsibility for their own choices, make class schedules, make medical appointments, and move freely across the campus to appointments, events and classes.”

How far Utah’s planners will be able to go in the direction of Las Colinas is uncertain. A smaller facility designed for low-risk women on a generous budget, the San Diego facility sets a standard for amenities and openness that Utah cannot hope to match. Trees will be out of the question for Utah, Miller acknowledges.

The Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility in San Diego County, California. Designed by HMC Architects. The new Utah prison will draw on some of the aesthetic concepts in this lower security, short-term facility. | KMD/HMC Architects

But Las Colinas is not alone. It’s part of an international movement away from stark utilitarian prisons and toward the use of natural light, space and color.

Scandinavian countries are leaders in this movement, and the Rolls Royce of the world's maximum security prisons is thought to be Halden Prison, set within a forest along Norway's southern border with Sweden. Widely hailed as the "most humane prison in the world," Halden houses roughly 250 of the most serious offenders.

Unlike most U.S. prisons, Halden sports large windows with ample views of evergreen trees within the grounds, bright rooms with plenty of natural light, and modern, comfortable furniture. Halden looks more like a college dorm than a maximum security prison. The fence is overshadowed by tall evergreens inside and outside the barrier. Prisoners get their food from a prison grocery store and cook it in communal kitchens, though kitchen knives are firmly cabled to the walls.

“Halden is a humane prison, but we should be wary of saying that it is the model prison that all others should aspire to,” said Jewkes, who spent several weeks doing research at Halden last year.

Halden is not necessarily as idyllic as all that, she says. Many prisoners only spend one hour a day outside, and only in the smaller yards adjoining their building, not amongst the evergreens. The therapeutic garden is underused because they lack staff to accompany the men in the garden, and the jogging track, widely cited as a key feature, is for staff only. And, because it is so expensive, at over $80,000 per inmate per year, Jewkes said, officials in Norway tell her they will not be building any more Haldens.

Needless to say, anyone hoping for Utah to be Halden writ large is bound to be disappointed. But the general model — light and color, green spaces, artwork and even normal activities like cooking for oneself — do reflect the front edge of prison innovation. And Utah will be judged by the international community, in part, by how well it captures this new direction.

Human interaction

The most radical shift in Utah's new prison design, however, is not visible design but the interactions and routines the new structure allows.

“The old model is basically a box inside of a box,” said Kevin Miller, CEO of GSBS architects, the local design firm for the new prison. “You put the prisoners inside the inner box and the guards watch them from the outer box, making as little contact with the prisoners as possible. You can imagine how dehumanizing that is.”

Known as indirect supervision, this approach isolates inmates from officers, limiting risk but also essentially turning much of prison control over to inmates. In American prisons, inmates and their gangs typically provide much of the social control (and chaos) themselves.

The new theory involves a focus on inmates as human beings — rather than as storage units. “The fundamental question,” Miller said, “is how do the humans interact?” And the answer, he says, is that they need more healthy interaction with officers and with other inmates.

In the new Utah prison, Miller said, cells will be arranged around “day rooms,” and officers will interact one-on-one and with groups, having exchanges with inmates throughout the day. “One way to control inmates,” Miller said, “is to get to know them well enough that you know what’s going on and can see when they are upset.”

Small communities

Utah is following international innovations in architecture and supervision models, but in at least one area it is cutting new ground.

The new prison will be the first to combine the economies of scale available from large size and centralized services with smaller, segregated communities that serve specific needs. Just as a large university offers cultural and academic amenities not found at a small college, Utah’s prison planners believe they will be able to offer top quality education, occupational training and health care at scale, while still separating populations that need to be handled differently.

Workers repair a soft spot in the temporary haul road for the new prison in Salt Lake City on Feb. 22, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Built around a main street and a hub of administrative and medical facilities, the prison will consist of smaller communities carved from the general prison population. These include separate buildings for different groups, ranging from maximum security to female inmates, from those preparing to re-enter society to addiction and behavior therapeutic communities. Women, the mentally ill and therapeutic communities will have “sight and sound” separation from the noisier and harsher general population.

These smaller communities are critical to the success of the state’s justice reinvestment program, Miller said, and separating therapeutic communities from the general population will allow the new skills and commitments those inmates learn to take root.

The general prison population will be separated into two nearly identical units. This will allow prisoners to be safely separated from those who might hurt them, without putting either party into restrictive isolation.

The general population also has a complete “step down” program, Miller said, which means that entering prisoners will start in a highly controlled environment but move into more comfortable living arrangements with good behavior.

Pushing boundaries

Utah’s natural light and commons areas will be a huge leap forward from the long gray rows at Draper, but it will not be a Halden or even a Las Colinas, and many wish it would push the boundaries further.

Workers install a concrete culvert to go under a temporary haul road for construction of the new prison in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

One of those is Elizabeth Grant, an architectural anthropologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, who holds that most prisoners can both handle and benefit from more freedom than we tend to give them.

Grant gives grudging respect to efforts like Las Colinas. But she wonders why new prisons like Utah's couldn't adopt a less punitive approach for those who earn the privilege. The key, Grant argues, is to give inmates a normalcy that many of them have never experienced to better prepare them for both responsibility and trust when they leave.

"Trust begets trust," Grant says.

She points to the Boronia Pre-Release Center for Women in Perth, Australia — a grassy open campus of cottages without walls, where women live and cook together in small groups, one of several cottage-based correctional facilities in Australia and Grant’s preferred approach.

A similar women's prison has long been operating here in the U.S. For over 30 years, on a green campus with lush lawns and trees, Shakopee Women's Prison did not even have a fence. Signs posted outside a low hedge blandly intoned, “Minnesota Correctional Facility — NO TRESPASSING.”

A hedge and a "no trespassing" sign mark the west border of the Shakopee Women's Prison in Shakopee, Minn. | Jim Mone, Associated Press

And as with Boronia, when Shakopee did finally put up a fence last year, Carter says it was mainly to keep people out. Kids on their way to school had been cutting through the facility.

Nor is Shakopee reserved for light offenses or pre-release. It typically houses up to 100 murderers among its 600 women prisoners. In the past 20 years, there have been 16 escapes from the wide open prison, but all were quickly apprehended.

The key to the freedom at Shakopee, Carter says, is that the women there earn the privilege, and they recognize that Minnesota has much tougher places they could go if they fail.

Carter embraces Grant’s general aspirations. But of necessity, he has to pick his fights and temper his expectations. He knows that costs will always be a factor, and that the safety of staff and inmates is paramount.

"My next windmill is private toilets," Carter said. He says there are models in Canada and Europe that show private toilets can be built for not much more space or money and without compromising security.

"If you have two people sharing a bedroom,” Carter says, “then having a toilet at the head of the bed is really not terribly humane.”