Drawn Justice

Drawn Justice

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Linda Bernauer
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Linda Bernauer

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Drawn Justice: The Case for Designing Criminal Facilities

It’s very timely that this article is being published now, as we face the global coronavirus pandemic. Places of detention and correction (including immigration facilities) are particularly vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease because of the close quarters that people must endure. The lack of sanitary facilities has been well documented of late as our immigration detention centers have been scrutinized by the media. This pandemic brings to light the changes that must be made quickly to reform our criminal justice system, not just for those detained, but for those employed in the facilities. We, as a society, need to closely examine the entire system to increase safety and security for all concerned.

Justice architecture encompasses those buildings where our criminal justice system is carried out — the courthouses, police stations, jails, prisons, juvenile facilities, border stations, and even some combinations of those. The word justice has several definitions. In architecture, the narrow definition is the administration of the law or authority. However, the larger definition encompasses words like fairness, objectivity, neutrality, and impartiality as well as a lack of prejudice with genuine respect for people. As an AIA architect specializing in justice buildings and a member of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ), I believe in working with clients to provide spaces that work for the expanded definition of justice in our society. The criminal justice system’s impact on our society is complex.

“It provides public safety and responds to criminal behavior through a variety of means including deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, rehabilitation, and even restitution and restoration.1” The AAJ categorizes its work into societal, community, facility, and human scales, which are outlined in the Sustainable Justice Guidelines, available for download on the AIA/AAJ website.

This document, published in 2011, updated in 2015, and currently under its third revision, not only addresses sustainable buildings, but the sustainability of the system as it seeks to protect public safety. It also considers the dignity of people entering the system at police stations, courts, jails, and prisons. The treatment of those labeled as criminals has long centered on punishment rather than rehabilitation or restorative practices that bring victims and perpetrators together to resolve minor crimes. The system is one of separation, and the more heinous the crime, the more severe the punishment or separation.

In the United States, this has led to record levels of incarceration, starting in the 1980s with the “tough on crime” legislation. While extreme sentencing for some federal offenses is being repealed with the First Step Act, we have a long way to go.

Many of the facilities built in the 1980s to deal with the ballooning inmate population are near the end of their useful lives, requiring replacement or  major  renovation to meet current needs. Medical, educational, and mental health treatment spaces — not incorporated into the original facilities — now must be addressed. Concerns about how these environments affect inmates has long been an area of AIA/AAJ research.

The reasons for practicing justice architecture are varied and can be extremely personal. Some of us have family members who have been incarcerated. Some of us have loved ones with severe mental illnesses who are not adequately treated in the medical/mental health systems offered by our communities.

Often, the mentally ill end up in jail, which has become the de facto mental health treatment system in the U.S. My story is centered on them and their families.

As the parent of an elementary school child diagnosed with a severe mental illness, I experienced firsthand the limited mental health services provided in the U.S. health care system. At the time we were seeking treatment, insurance covered only 50% of mental health treatment, leaving us with large expenses for treatments and medication that changed as our child grew. Coupled with inadequate services in the public education system, as well as in some private educational settings, we were saddled with costs we’d never imagined.

This experience made me wonder how people with fewer resources could begin to cope in similar situations. During the time we faced these hardships, I was working on a courthouse project — and beginning to understand how and where people with little money were treated. Shortly after my courthouse project, I was introduced to the AIA/ AAJ and attended my first conference.

What I learned was that the AIA/AAJ members want to see a more humane approach to justice for those who encounter the system at any level. We have found that involvement in the AIA/AAJ provides us with the support and resources we need to communicate with our clients, industry partners, and experts to design better facilities. There are architects who would like to see the AIA recuse itself from designing detention and correctional buildings, most notably spaces for solitary confinement and implementation of the death penalty.

Unlike the medical community that has refused to be present when death sentences are carried out, if the AIA decided that its member architects could be expelled for practice in these areas, the facility design and construction would not stop but would be carried out by those less interested in change.

For example, our work with the American Correctional Association has led to the review of the restrictive housing policies outlined in its design standards. If some architects had refused to design solitary confinement spaces, dialogue about the practice would not have been possible. Working within a system creates more positive outcomes for all involved.



In addition to the Sustainable Justice Guidelines, there are several ways that AIA/AAJ architects share best practices and the most current thinking. Find more information on AAJ here.

CONFERENCES: AAJ conferences target social justice, highlighting relationships with judges, attorneys, law enforcers, corrections facilities directors and administrators, social service providers, and others in criminal justice. Sessions have explored best practices, looked at the system through the eyes of criminologists, and studied treatment and therapeutic environments in criminal justice facilities. In 2019, topics examined social divisions within communities and how designers can address the inequalities that shape the criminal justice system.

JUSTICE FACILITY REVIEW (JFR) JURORS: The jury chair and jurors are selected from the design community at large, and not all are AAJ members. Owner jurors are also selected for each of three building types: courts, public safety, and detention/corrections. Any firm may enter projects, which are judged not only on design merit, but also on best practices and following the Sustainable Justice Guidelines. Download AAJ review publications here.

AAJOURNAL: The digital publication is a Knowledge Community selection when joining the AIA, renewing a membership or anytime through the AIA website. Articles include interviews with industry leaders and emerging professionals, project reviews, conference presentations, and topics such as the ethics of designing facilities for incarceration.

RESEARCH SUMMARIES: The AAJ website contains links to summaries on justice design research. Topics include the influence of courtroom design on the judicial process, alternatives to isolating inmates with severe mental illnesses, gun range design, health and safety implications of nighttime lighting, and recommendations on supermax prisons.

POST-OCCUPANCY EVALUATION TOOLKIT: Specific to courthouses, the toolkit provides details and examples on conducting a post-occupancy evaluation. Its purpose is to evaluate the condition and performance of features of materials and systems of the courthouse.

COMMITTEE MEMBERSHIP: Joining a committee opens avenues for collaboration and sharing expertise. Committees include Research, Sustainability, Communications, Emerging Professionals, University Outreach, Conference Planning and Justice Partners (works with related associations). The Leadership and the Justice Facilities Review Committees are by invitation only.


Four Dallas-Fort Worth projects involved collaboration with AAJ members and firms. Two of the projects achieved recognition by the Justice Facility Review, and two are LEED certified and exemplify the Sustainable Justice Guidelines. The projects are listed by completion date.

The Jack Evans Police Headquarters is a nod to its warehouse district location. The city of Dallas’ third LEED project, it makes use of natural light filtering in from a central courtyard. // Credit: Mark Trew Photography


DESIGN TEAM: PSA Dewberry with MWL
JFR Citation
This was the first LEED Silver certified project undertaken by the city of Dallas. The project embraced a more open design to better engage with the surrounding community, and the style acknowledges the historic warehouse district location.


The unbuilt addition to Dallas County Youth Village, a minimum-security center for boys 10-17 in the criminal justice system, follows the open-campus design. // Renderings: HOK


DESIGN TEAM: HOK, KAI Texas, JQ, Charyl McAfee Duncan, FAIA
PROGRAMMING: Jay Farbstein Associates
2009 Unbuilt Design
The plans follow the open-campus residential treatment design recommended for male juvenile offenders ages 10-17 who have been adjudicated and need to be removed from their home environment.


The modernization of Dallas County Jail, including the men’s mental health dormitory and the acute care area, was modernized to treat inmates within the building instead of transferring them to Parkland Memorial Hospital. // Credit: Emily Hagopian/HDR Architecture


DESIGN TEAM: HDR, JQ, EnGlobal, APM & Associates
JFR 2017 Published Project
This facility is the first of its kind dedicated to mental illness with an integrated full-service approach. The renovated basement storage space in the Lew Sterrett North Jail Tower provides medical and mental health services for about 6,000 inmates. Mental health inmates have a separate movement path through the facility to provide the proper treatment environments to increase positive outcomes. This project has served as an example for several much larger facilities now in design throughout the U.S.


The Tom Vandergriff Civil Courts Building features limestone angels from Tarrant County’s old civil courts building. Inside, the courtrooms set a dignified mood. // Credit: Joe Aker


DESIGN TEAM: HOK (planning, building exterior, courtroom design) with HKS (interior design), JQ, Summit Consultants PROGRAMMING: CGL
The building, which carries LEED Gold certification, has large windows that illuminate public areas and office space. The front and rear facades feature three limestone angels removed from the old Civil Courts Building.


Linda Bernauer, AIA is principal and senior project manager at HOK.