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NYU Tandon Professor Edits a New Guidebook for More Just and Humane Prisons

Towards Humane Prisons Richard Wener

The cover of Professor Richard Wener's new book on human prison design

Experts estimate that some 10 million people around the world are currently being detained within the criminal justice system; designing prisons that will not exacerbate the social, emotional, and physical problems already plaguing those who’ve ended up behind bars is thus critically important. Engineers and design thinkers have a major role to play in this arena, as Tandon Professor of Technology, Culture and Society Richard E. Wener points out in his new book, Towards Humane Prisons: A Principled and Participatory Approach to Prison Planning and Design, which he co-edited with Elizabeth Chesla under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Wener — an environmental psychologist who has been studying the way correctional architecture affects facility operations and the behavior of staff and inmates since 1975 — has pointed out that the design of any building profoundly affects how we feel and act within it and this is especially true of places of detention, where people deprived of their freedom (sometimes for lengthy periods) are forced to cede control over their daily lives.

Hewing to the Tandon ethos of improving society, Towards Humane Prisons is aimed at ensuring that newly designed facilities empower and enable prison staff to provide humane and dignified treatment and living conditions for detainees.

Q & A with Richard Wener

How are popular prison designs currently harming prisons and the goals of rehabilitation?

There are many issues, but one of the most important is the broad use of long-term solitary confinement.  Such confinement may produce significant psychological problems, and, in the form used, is rarely necessary. Even when separation of detainees is needed for safety, it is possible to do so without cutting people off so drastically from social interaction and the programs and services they need and deserve.

What is currently lacking in the design of the majority of U.S. prisons?

Detainees in many facilities are exposed to significant stresses (including crowding, noise, isolation, and fluctuating temperatures) and have little ability to use important means of coping, such as contact with family and access to nature.

What’s an easy design update prisons could make for significant results?

Successful facilities recognize that most detainees will respond to decent conditions with reasonable behavior.  Conditions that more resemble reasonable residential living often lead to better behavior and can reduce the severity of separation.

How would updating standard prison designs benefit the larger population of American citizens?

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world by far, and many re-offend and are re-incarcerated upon release. We need to address the broader criminal justice system and prison design, so that as many people as possible can be treated without imprisonment. For those who are placed in prison or jails, we need to remember that loss of liberty — imprisonment — is done as punishment, not for punishment. Conditions inside don’t need to be harsh and punitive, especially if we want those detained to have a better chance once released.

How did you get involved with the Red Cross?

The ICRC has a division that visits prisons around the world to advocate for humane treatment. They often visit places that are planning new prisons and become aware of problems in the designs. They realized the need for a document that could guide planners and invited a dozen prison researchers, designers and managers to a meeting in Geneva to discuss the project; I agreed to be the managing editor.

How did you go about choosing contributors and participating experts?

We specifically sought people who would represent the perspectives of all regions of the world. Some are architects and planners who have designed model facilities, while others have done specific focused research — such as studying causes of suicides in prisons. The people who work for the ICRC have vast experience and also contributed extensively to the book.

Professor Semiha Ergan (Civil and Urban Engineering; CUSP) is studying physiological responses to the built environment and thinking about "smart" buildings that react to physiological cues. Do you foresee prisons getting smarter one day?

When people live in 24/7 settings every problem, big or small, such as lighting, temperature, or airflow, can become a major source of stress. Smart buildings that can address these problems could have a role in future prisons.

Do you have any advice for aspiring engineers who want to get involved in this area — or who want, in general, to use their skills to advance social justice?

Many of the issues prison planners deal with relate to engineering and infrastructure — how can prison facilities support communities rather than drain resources in terms of use of water, power, and waste, for instance. Engineers play a major role in making daily life healthy and bearable — often in ways people don’t notice — until they don’t work!

What is the most important "take-away" from the book for Tandon students — or for anyone?

The best way to reduce the social and economic costs of imprisonment is to seek alternatives to imprisonment. Beyond that, it is possible to design, build, and operate prisons that treat people humanely and are both safe and secure. Humane prisons are important for ethical and legal purposes, but also increase the likelihood that people who have been imprisoned will be able to return to their communities and live in ways that reduce their chances of re-offending and being re-incarcerated.

Can you address recent news stories about children being separated from their parents at the U.S. border and the conditions in which they’re being held? Do designers and engineers have a responsibility to speak out about the matter and come up with more humane solutions? 

While I don’t know all the facts and circumstances, in general, designers and engineers are obligated to respond to the treatment of people, especially in conditions they help create. It is not always easy to know how things will be used and what conditions will be but we all have a responsibility to consider these problems and be aware of how our work is being used. Many good people — engineers — have risked their careers by becoming whistleblowers, but sometimes it may as simple as pointing out problems and suggesting alternatives.