Rehab City: reinventing the architecture of incarceration


By Stanley Ira Hallet

As an architect and educator frustrated by the many challenges faced by an unprepared inmate recently released for his third time in prison, I believe it is high time to rethink the purpose and form of incarceration in an age of social justice. The following is such a proposal, Rehab City.

But first, this is not a college campus although there will be plenty of learning opportunities. It is not a psychiatric hospital, although it undoubtedly supports residents with therapy. And it is not a labor camp although there is plenty of space to experience the dignity and self-confirmation of labor. I call him Rehab Cityan alternative.

Rehab City can be compared to a walled city, with the emphasis on the city where inmates or “residents” live in secure single rooms. Rehab City also looks like a traditional monastery where work and study predominate, or it can even look like the traditional main street where people live above their work.

Rehab City is not only the dressing up of the old prison model, but it completely redefines the daily routine of the resident by providing a context that supports a safe place for work, learning, therapy and recreation. The architecture of Rehab City is completely redefined where every square foot of building and landscape has been programmed and designed to prepare residents upon release to make their transition from “inmates” to active members of civil society.

On a typical day, residents spend 4 hours a day, 6 days a week, To work earn electronic credits that will pay for Rehab City maintenance (20%) plus an additional 20% that can be set aside in a savings account that can be converted to dollars upon release. The remaining 60% covers their day-to-day expenses such as eating at resident-run restaurants in Rehab City (there are no cafeterias in Rehab City), laundry, and even upgrading their single-occupancy rooms. 4 additional hours per day, 6 days per week, are spent either in Learning leading to degrees and certification and/or for Therapy. An equivalent of 4 hours per day, 6 days per week is allocated to Recreation. Inside the walls of Rehab City, residents move around unescorted, wearing an Ultra Wideband Tech (UWB) wristband that allows access to assigned activity spaces as well as tracking hours spent at work, home, and school. learning, therapy and recreation. It also records e-credits earned as well as credits spent, teaching personal finance in the process.

The basic components of Rehab City are described below starting with the basic cell or mini-apartment and ending with the complete Rehab City in all its dimensions:

Resident’s cell measures 12ft by 16ft and becomes a mini apartment with wide resident and staff controlled sliding doors at one end and an equally wide window at the other end offering plenty of light and fresh air. Along the side walls, four 3ft by 8ft areas contain a private shower and toilet eliminating the need for group bathrooms as well as space to accommodate extended sleeping, storage and study offices as well as a kitchenette. Built by residents of Rehab City, they can be paid for by electronic credits earned by residents. The sleeping area can also be fitted out with bunk beds and trundle beds to accommodate women and young children where permitted.

A typical residential floor consists of 13 residents in mini apartments with a floor monitor or “lifer” in charge of supervising this mini neighborhood. A laundry room serves as a meeting space at one end just off a fire escape landing or a plant-filled fresh air balcony. The wide inner hallway acts as an inner street where residents continue to meet, forming hopefully a self-contained unit.

the typical residential building looks a lot like an urban building where three floors of mini-neighborhoods are stacked on top of each other. No resident crosses neighboring floors to exit the building. On each pair of residential buildings, a rooftop houses a greenhouse providing year-round crops to Rehab City restaurants and teaching residents the latest greenhouse technology. A second roof contains solar panels made and installed by residents providing power to the pair of connected buildings. Those who fabricate and maintain the advanced energy systems of a typical building can also earn building engineering certification.

At street levelresident-run restaurants, bakeries, carpentry and learning rooms are

easily visible when walking down a single pedestrian street. Fair in the basement, and easily accessible, well-lit, and ventilated spaces house therapy spaces often shared with mini-gyms so that those who lift weights can participate in discussions with their colleagues when appropriate. Other similar spaces contain shared religious spaces as well as yoga, dance, and drama classes. Finally, a nursery ensures the education, the approval of the mothers and the safety of the young children.

Along the pedestrian street, each pair of residential buildings share a single stair/elevator core and when added in pairs along the pedestrian street, they account for up to 80% of Rehab City’s construction. Interstitial courses formed between the buildings house crops producing goods for Rehab City and ensure that plenty of fresh air and sunlight enter through the windows of each individual mini-apartment. The courtyards also lead to adjacent agricultural fields, a chicken coop, a small experimental fish farm and special buildings where solar panel manufacturing takes place.

the pedestrian street also leads to a semi-public urban square where controlled access allows family and neighborhood visitors to enter and purchase Rehab City-produced goods as well as participate in resident-produced events. They can also register at the central “town hall” to visit residents over meals prepared by restaurants in Rehab City. If they wish, they can spend the night upstairs in a mini-apartment hotel where residents learn hospitality. Customers can pay for all of this by exchanging cash for tokens at the checkout gate. Residents can also pay for guest family using their earned eCredits.

Rehab City comes in a variety of evolutionary forms. Type a holds a single pedestrian street of over 400 residents leading to a single semi-public plaza flanked by garden apartments built outside the walls of Rehab City. These host mentors, staff and their families and provide transition houses for residents transitioning into civil society. Type two places an enlarged semi-public square between two pedestrian streets allowing more than 800 residents to stay in two distinct neighborhoods. A 200-bed Starter Rehab City Type 1 provides a venue to test a Rehab City approach while allowing for expansion at later stages. Finally, Rehab City can be adjusted to fit a variety of rural, suburban, or urban locations. It may occupy agricultural fields, abandoned shopping malls, or near-vacant industrial urban sites near neighborhoods where resident family members often reside.

In many ways, Rehab City can become an alternative to traditional incarceration where rehabilitation takes precedence over punishment. In the process, Rehab City becomes a sustainable compact village where residences prepare, grow, assemble and oversee most of the products required by any small community. Inside the walls of Rehab City, residents learn to work as well as help each other in their anticipation of returning to civil society where they will be better equipped to contribute.

These may just be the naive delusions of a retired architectural academic, but I hope they serve as a catalyst for discussions revisiting incarceration where confined people can be treated with dignity and empathy. Perhaps there is a better name for Rehab City since if we ever did away with incarceration, Rehab City could easily be turned into a place for the homeless, the battered, and even troubled teenagers. But first we need to rethink reincarceration. Hopefully this will fuel further discussion.

Stanley Ira Hallet, FAIA, is the former Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Catholic University of America.

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


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