Restorative Justice: An Interview with Deanna VanBuren

The Mediation Womb, a space “for restorative justice and peacemaking as a holistic model for change,” designed by FORUM Design Studio. Image Courtesy of

We’ve recently covered the topic of prison design on a number of occasions – more specifically the work of Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility, led by Raphael Sperry. ADPSR is campaigning to have the AIA forbid its members from designing prisons; however, we have previously questioned the effectiveness of this tactic, with other professionals, such as engineers, often willing to design prisons in the absence of architects. In another article on the topic, we suggested that the problem lies not with the ethics of architects, but with the US prison system itself.

This raised the question of how architects might actually change the system – are we stuck with the political landscape we are given, or are we capable of leveraging our expertise to make positive changes to society?

It turns out that of FOURM Design Studio is doing exactly that. Through her designs, as well as workshops and events with the public and with prisoners, VanBuren is championing restorative justice: a form of incarceration centered around rehabilitation rather than punishment. We interviewed VanBuren to find out how she is encouraging people to accept restorative justice above punishment.

Read on after the break for the full interview.

A redesign of a courtroom from one of VanBuren’s Workshops. Image Courtesy of FOURM Design Studio

ArchDaily: First off, I’d like to know in more detail how you’re engaging both the public and those in prisons, for whom you run workshops. What is the format of the design workshops, and can you give some examples of how they have affected participants?

Deanna Van Buren: One way we are currently engaging with the public on the issues of restorative justice, design and incarcerated spaces is through lectures and workshops at critical conferences. These conferences cover the key stakeholder groups which include: restorative justice practitioners, peace and justice advocates, architects & designers, mediators, social workers, and those working in corrections. My partner, Barb Toews is a PhD candidate in social work at Bryn Mawr and we are doing these individually and separately at the following: The National Restorative Justice Conference, Peace and Justice Studies Association, International Institute of Restorative Practices, Canada National RJ Symposium, Virginia Mediators Conference and the American Society of Criminology.

Inside the institutions we have done and will continue to run design studios and do evidence-based design research in Chester Prison and various jails around Philadelphia. We are developing and setting up a series of two-day workshops we hope to hold in San Quentin, Graterford prison where Barb has been working for a long time and two additional women’s prisons, one on each coast. In order to do these we have developed a toolkit that meets the strict security requirements of many institutions. We will create a website where stakeholders can access these tools but will also be creating a hard copy version, since incarcerated men and women do not have access to digital tools.

The format of the workshops include key readings across design and restorative justice that accompany handouts for seminar style discussions using a circle format. These tend to be quite intense discussions on everything from “does architecture punish” to how city planning and gentrification impact their communities. The second half of the classes or workshops involves teaching design tools that enable the students to engage in a final project where they redesign the spaces they live in. We had a final presentation the last time the supervisor and some staff attended. They also sat on the review panel with us.

Peacemaking Room for Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, Castlemont Highschool by FOURM Design Studio. Image © Theodor Rzad

AD: Currently, the general public in the US tends to view incarceration as predominantly a punitive exercise – do you believe that this is a particular challenge to your work, or do you find that most people change their opinions when confronted with evidence, such as the example set by New Zealand (where restorative justice has been in place for 20 years and has proven to be very effective)?

DV: To date these attitudes, along with ignorance of restorative justice or what designers do, has made this work challenging. Those working in criminal justice may become defensive as their role within the context of the system appears to be under threat – or if ideas about designing spaces for refuge and rehabilitation conflict with entrenched ideas about crime and punishment. Both are often seen as soft options. Examples of New Zealand are intriguing to people and sometimes helpful in advocating for restorative justice, but often what is more impactful are the stories of our interactions with the men and women in prison. It helps people to see them as human… which of course they are.

AD: The response in comments on ArchDaily, and in other places regarding the work of ADPSR, generally has a progressive outlook on incarceration. In your experience, do you find architects as a group to be more progressive when it comes to incarceration?

DV: I think in general we are a more progressive bunch [...]. I do think we tend to stay in our bubbles and don’t get out to places where people have a very different point of view or just haven’t met anyone doing things differently. It’s important that we also reach out to those that disagree with us even though it can be not so fun!

A redesign of a visiting room from one of VanBuren’s Workshops. Image Courtesy of FOURM Design Studio

AD: Can you give any comment on why it is you think the US justice system has come to take such a hard line on criminality?

DV: I am in agreement with Michelle Alexander that the hard line on crime we see now is coming out of a political strategy started by the Republican party under Nixon as a way of getting the low-income white vote which had traditionally been democratic. In order to do so politicians began criminalizing the civil rights moment and black America as a public safety issue through veiled racial rhetoric. The great slogan “getting tough on crime” was born out of this and became necessary to advance this mission and generated a lot of fear of the other. By the 80s the “war on drugs” became a major campaign to support this. White flight, disinvestment in our cities and the moving of jobs overseas only contributed to the climate of fear in this country as our urban cores declined. The film The House I Live in and Chapter 1 of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow outline this progression very succinctly. The Race to Incarcerate by Marc Mauer is also a good resource for looking at crime and punishment across decades (including democratic contributions to our current problems).

The Mediation Womb in Situ. Original photography. Image © Navin Sarma

AD: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the ultimate goal of what you do is to change a political landscape. With designs for restorative justice requiring a client willing to pay (in other words needing political backing), how do architects effect this change?

DV: I think it requires a great deal of education and campaigning to change our view of crime and will need both grassroots leaders and those at the top to participate in this. I am a very strong advocate for education and awareness building on all these topics from design education to awareness of the punitive system and its effects.

As part of the Public Interest Design movement my practice and partners are supporting these efforts at the moment by locating non-profits such as The National Council on Crime and Delinquency or the Center for Court Innovation who have respected track records innovating within the system and outside of it. We ask them to team with us to create spaces for restorative justice and peacemaking as a holistic model for change, such as our design for the Mediation Womb. We are in the early stages in that we are currently applying for grants to do these projects. In some cases we are looking to get funding that will create a vision to accompany program expansion and will then take that to the politicians at the top as a more comprehensive approach to addressing the prison industrial crisis. Many of my clients are also looking into social impact bonds which may be a way to fund more of this work.

The Mediation Womb in Situ. Original photography. Image © Have Camera Will Travel

Ultimately we use billions of our tax dollars on our punitive justice infrastructure so I think it will be easy to make the case to deflect some of the money into creating new prototypes like opportunity network centers and restorative justice centers that will cost a fraction of the price and support a process that will reduce crime – and also of course the obscene amount we are spending on punitive architecture.

My partner Barb would also add that its important to inspire people to think about the design of spaces and give them basic knowledge and skills to make their own changes, including changes that require little or no cost. For example, social workers can move their office furniture around so that clients have a view of the outside during sessions. In some ways it is a question of the different ways in which political landscapes can change – it requires small grassroots incremental stages as well as larger, top-down changes.

Cite: Stott, Rory. "Restorative Justice: An Interview with Deanna VanBuren" 26 Aug 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 Jul 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=419868>

4 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    “ADPSR is campaigning to have the AIA forbid its members from designing prisons”
    You cant possibly be serious?

  2. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    B proactive….and b part of the solution. Refreshing read..thnk you.
    Grrr.. Still pissed about some architects turning their backs to a major problem…take real action like dianna

  3. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    ADPSR is campaigning to have the AIA forbid its members from designing execution chambers and spaces for prolonged solitary confinement: two activities that are identified as human rights violations by the United Nations. This makes sense because AIA’s Code of Ethics already calls on members to generally “uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.” Deanna is a board member of ADPSR: we greatly value her work as a demonstration of how architectural projects can make the justice system and our broader society better, whereas the projects we’d like to see banned make the world actively worse.

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