Just spaces.

My blog has been dormant for a while because a dinosaur ate my computer I spilled milk on my keyboard. At the present, it has returned to nearly normal functioning (knock on wood).

As usual, I would be here for years if I tried to describe everything I have been learning and thinking about for the last couple weeks. So I’ll write now about a topic that has been in my mind all summer.

Last semester I took a class at Haverford called Restorative Justice: Designing Spaces, Designing Justice. The course was focused on the impact of architecture and environmental design on the justice process. I was initially drawn to the class because it was modeled on Temple University’s “Inside-Out” program. Half of the students were from Haverford and Bryn Mawr and the other half were inmates at the Chester State Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison outside of Philadelphia. We met in the prison’s visiting room. Our class of 18 had a far wider range of experiences, ideas, and opinions than any other class I have taken. Our discussions and readings felt relevant, immediate, and important. It was an enlightening experience and I left the semester with my mind brimming with ideas about how design can (and absolutely does) facilitate or obstruct justice. Still, I was surprised at how naturally my learning in the Chester class has informed my experience at CRJI.

“Space” and “justice” are broad and loaded terms. When I talk here about spaces of justice, I mean physical spaces occupied by elements of the criminal justice system (prisons, probation offices, courthouses, police stations, etc.) and physical spaces in use under the umbrella of restorative justice (mediation rooms, restorative training/education spaces, and offices like CRJI offering restorative justice services). When I talk about design and physical space I include the physical structure and architecture of buildings, external appearance, interior design and decoration, lighting, temperature, furniture, etc., but I also mean the locations of buildings, geography, the layout and distribution of services and resources.

All of these terms and ideas have been percolating in my brain throughout the course of my internship, and I have greatly expanded my learning from class. We talked a great deal about what a space can communicate to its occupants, and the feelings it can inspire. I will try to follow up with some of my favorite examples of this, it is fascinating to think about.

The first thing I noticed on this topic this summer was CRJI’s decentralization of services. The organization has a strong centralized structure and a central office, but most of the on the ground work takes place in small offices located in neighborhoods around the city, in the communities they serve. These offices are largely staffed by individuals who grew up in those communities, offices are conveniently located and accessible, and they are able to tailor their focus and operations to meet the specific needs of their respective communities. Thus, CRJI maintains a strong community focus and foundation, while making strides at a higher level within the criminal justice system. The location and accessibility of the offices was immediately recognizable as one way that design is facilitating justice here. When I started thinking about others, however, it was not always so obvious.

The local offices I have been to have been well-kept and comfortable, but humble. They are not shiny and super modern or luxuriously outfitted for every need and occasion, not overly homey or highly decorated. This was of course no surprise, and from my experience describes most small offices engaged in community or other social justice work. It wasn’t that I ever believed that an organization needed a perfect space to be effective, just that in thinking all semester about justice and design, I had hardly considered all of the wonderful work based out of spaces like these. I realized that most of our class focus had been on transforming spaces within the traditional criminal justice system or on designing brand new spaces for specific restorative justice processes.

I had wrapped up the semester convinced that environmental design was an important, but often overlooked element of the justice process. I saw how design could express and facilitate restorative values of trust, respect, honesty and accountability. Yet here I was, working with an organization founded on and exuding these values, and the design of the office spaces seemed barely relevant. So I wondered, why does it seem so crucial to physically redesign or refurbish some nonfunctioning spaces of the justice process when a careful and focused environmental design process is rarely a priority for many of the most effective restorative justice groups?

Reflection on this question has certainly not led me to any groundbreaking discoveries. In fact, to the vast majority of the human population this is likely a rather bland topic. I have learned a lot though, about institutions, communities, humans, and the spaces they occupy.

Positive interactions and positive relationships lead to positive emotions. When people engage with each other in a respectful and honest manner, when they feel heard and valued, they will feel personally empowered. It makes perfect sense that such a personal interaction would be far more important to most individuals than a broken window blind, a lumpy chair cushion, or a slight chill in the room that housed this interaction. However, if one is wrapped up in an impersonal, mechanized system, stripped of their individuality, and interacting with a painfully square and unsympathetic bureaucrat, then all of a sudden that broken blind, lumpy chair cushion, and chilliness provide further evidence of how little respect the system has for one’s needs and comfort.

If a space can make those who use it physically comfortable, can welcome them, and offer even a small degree of ownership over the space (e.g., different seating options, window open or closed, wider selection of waiting room reading), then the physical space itself can communicate that some part of the system has at least a basic respect for their personhood. This may seem minor and a tad wishy-washy, especially if the institution and the bureaucrats are no different. But if a space offers respect and comfort, those using it will be more at ease and any preexisting negative feelings won’t be multiplied by the unpleasantness of a space. Interactions are now taking place in a positive environment so individuals can focus more on the interaction and less on how much they want to get out of the room. The same processes and procedures and interactions may occur, but with improved communication and humanity, not a fix to the system, but a start.

The criminal justice system is a mess of rigid walls and roles and rules, and the more compartmentalized and inhuman it gets, the harder it will be to dismantle. Some justice organizations, like CRJI, are completely built around human interactions and relationship-building, but some bodies, like many government agencies, are so systematized and established that redesign of their physical environments can have major ripple effects, bringing personal interactions and relationships back into the system.

I suppose this all may still sound rather vague and abstract, it’s just something to think about.


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