Academy of Architecture for Justice

San Diego Superior Courts

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The Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ) promotes and fosters the exchange of information and knowledge between members, professional organizations, and the public for high-quality planning, design, and delivery of justice architecture.

AIA AAJ Conference 2019: Las Colinas Women’s Detention and Reentry Facility: Normative and Trauma-Informed Design, human rights, opportunities for gender-responsive practice

By Emilia R. Cabeza de Baca Assoc. AIA posted 10-07-2019 13:12


On Thursday, October 24th at 3:30 pm, AAJ will lead a tour of the Las Colinas Women’s Detention and Reentry Facility. This LEED Gold campus has been awarded 17 awards, and counting, and completed its first phase of construction in 2014. The first phase of construction provided living quarters for the facility’s residents, exterior courtyards, administration, and visitation spaces. Normative design principles were key in this design.

Normative design is an emerging practice that is gaining prominence in healthcare, treatment, educational, and assisted living spaces. Normative spaces feel like home and are at a smaller residential scale with materials and finishes commonly used in residential or non-institutional commercial spaces. They diminish the stigma attached to treatment and civil commitment by putting administrative services, support programs, visitor spaces, and thoughtful landscaping out front, as tour participants will see at Las Colinas. Designed by kmd architects in association with HMC Architects, the entire environment of the campus was designed to “minimize physical and psychological barriers and promote direct and constructive communication among staff and inmates” (kmd architects quoted). In regard to normative design choices in this project, HMC Architects wrote We brought in a light color palette, soft and varied materials (including wood and glass), better acoustics, and ample natural light—all of which have been shown to reduce anger, stress, anxiety, sadness, and depression”. This sort of intentional design creates an ecosystem of support, improves productivity of treatment, creates trust between the women housed in this space and the justice and health professionals committed to their success, and protects the health and safety of correctional professionals. Normative design considerations have also been linked to reduction of recidivism, or repeat offending, and associated costs which can be in the millions of dollars.

Traditionally, justice facilities have been used to edify punishment for individuals who have broken a law. Toward the end of the 20th century and in the beginning of the 21st, public opinion of mass incarceration, law enforcement, and justice have been challenged and reframed dramatically. Prison abolitionists, movements admonishing physical and mental torture of inmates, and criminologists studying failure of systems have demanded justice through humanity and compassion (e.g. Restorative Justice, diversion programs, community reentry) rather than oppression and cruelty (e.g. exploitative prison labor, shackling of incarcerated women during childbirth, solitary confinement, imprisonment without trial).

Groups like Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) have petitioned the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to include in their code of ethics language enforcing design adherence to international human rights codes protecting the incarcerated or accused:

“In 2011, United Nations bodies determined that long-term solitary isolation is a form of torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment prohibited by international law, and made special reference to the United States use of supermax prisons and juvenile solitary confinement as violations. All international human rights bodies have also long included the abolition of the death penalty as a necessary ultimate step in realizing human rights. AIA‘s code of ethics already includes the statement ‘Members should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors,’ but this standard is unenforceable without reference to international human rights standards. Adding enforceable language to the AIA Code can help redress the problems caused by buildings that embody human rights violations.
Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) is asking the American Institute of Architects to amend its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to prohibit the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In the United States, this comprises the design of execution chambers; super-maximum security prisons (‘supermax’), where solitary confinement is an intolerable form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and solitary confinement facilities for juveniles and the mentally ill. As people of conscience and as a profession dedicated to improving the built environment for all people, we cannot participate in the design of spaces that violate human life and dignity. Participating in the development of buildings designed for killing, torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is fundamentally incompatible with professional practice that respects standards of decency and human rights.”

This reform has been endorsed by AIA San Francisco, AIA Portland, AIA Boston, Arc-Peace, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International, Design Corps, the Center for Architecture and Human Rights, but has not been adopted nationally. The recent increase in pre-trial detention, especially the detention of infants, children, and families along the US-Mexico border, has demanded the attention of AIA and inspired them on June 22, 2019, to issue a statement denouncing disgraceful conditions in many detention centers. The statement, which can be found on the AIA website, reads:

“The American Institute of Architects urges local, state, and federal leaders to work together to safeguard the dignity, safety, and welfare of everyone regardless of race, creed, gender, age or national origin in their custody and care at detention facilities.

AIA’s members are driven, as so clearly stated in our Code of Ethics, to ‘uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.’ Fundamentally, AIA’s vision is that the built environment promotes and preserves the health, safety, and welfare of every individual, and fosters universal respect for human dignity.

The conditions as described by numerous media reports and congressional fact-finding missions to detention facilities make clear that these buildings are not designed to handle the sheer numbers of people in them nor do they sustain the health, safety, and welfare of their occupants, many of whom are women and children. Above all, the misuse of these buildings and the impact on occupants in them are contrary to our values as architects and as Americans.  
Architects are leading efforts to promote the design of safe, dependable, and healthy housing or shelter, including detention facilities.  Good design can ensure security and safety for staff and the traveling public combined with respect for human dignity and our nation’s fundamental values.

The AIA stands ready to advance governmental policies, regulations, and procedures that provide the transparency, consistency, and predictability needed to maintain or improve the health, safety, and welfare requirements for all buildings.

AIA calls for building inspectors and others (with appropriate authority) to proactively evaluate facilities to ensure that they are in full compliance with applicable laws and regulations to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of inhabitants. Consistent with applicable laws and codes, we urge swift correction and mitigation of all building code violations and that existing building codes be used to ensure the safety and welfare of all.”

With public interest shifting for the better, some find this transition frustrating or absurd. Many individuals, communities, and governments believe that the primary purpose of incarceration is to punish wrongdoing, not only through restrictions of freedoms but also through non-consensual containment in oppressive, sometimes torturous or sickening spaces, without access to services or resources, which could include necessary medical treatment or connection to other living beings. In reality, many justice facilities are in effect education, social, and healthcare service providers. Many incarcerated individuals receive access to these services for the first time, at a higher quality, or more consistently than they would as civilians.

To elucidate these considerations, Thursday’s workshop will highlight 3 topics:

  1. The mental health challenges within detention facilities
  2. Strategies for establishing a community based mental health center
  3. Juveniles detention transitioning to restorative justice framework, focusing on reunifying youth with their families and communities

I am excited to learn how the project addresses these challenges, and I am curious how the all-female population of this facility influenced design. On HMC Architects’ page discussing the Las Colinas project, the firm addresses trauma-informed design, though they don’t explicitly use that term, in the following statement: “Acknowledging that over half of prisoners in America’s corrections system suffer from abuse, trauma and mental illness, the County of San Diego and the Sheriff’s Department recognized that building a healing environment to promote well-being and prevent further psychological deterioration was imperative.” While this intent is thoughtful, no mention was made about specific gender-responsive design decisions and implies a preference for non-binary, unisex generalizations. Though these considerations could be more inclusive for trans individuals in women’s facilities, the omission of the discussion of this practical framework seems odd. Women’s pathways to jail and prison are considerably different from men’s, and thus so are their architectural (encompassing their social, personal, environmental, emotional, psychological, and medical) needs. The National Resource Center for Justice Involved Women published an executive summary of decades’ worth of research in April 2012 entitled “Ten Truths That Matter When Working With Justice Involved Women” Gender-specific, trauma-informed design is integral to the practice and design of justice. These truth are:

  1. Women are a fast-growing criminal justice population, yet they pose a lower public safety risk than men.
  2. Women follow unique pathways into crime and present risk factors that signal different intervention needs.
  3. Women’s engagement in criminal behavior is often related to their relationships, connections, and disconnections with others.
  4. Traditional criminal justice policies and practices have largely been developed through the lens of managing men, not women.
  5. Justice involved women often report histories of sexual victimization and trauma, and continue to be vulnerable to victimization within correctional settings.
  6. Traditional prison classification systems tend to result in unreliable custody designations for incarcerated women.
  7. Gender-responsive assessment tools can enhance case management efforts with justice involved women.
  8. Women are more likely to respond favorably when criminal justice staff adhere to evidence-based, gender-responsive principles.
  9. Incarceration and reentry are particularly challenging for justice involved mothers of minor children.
  10. The costs of overly involving women in the criminal justice system are high.


It is curious that these considerations weren't mentioned, but the 17 awards, paint colors, and LEED status of the project were, especially given the all-female population being served. How the design team internalized and responded to these truths will de seen on the site visit. On the topic of site, I wonder how immigrant detention in this state along the US-Mexico border factored into this design conversation and strategy. Also remaining to be articulated are the sustainability measures taken to achieve LEED Gold status. Will Phase 2 of this plan pursue LEED Platinum or maybe even net-zero or net-positive performance required by programs like the Living Building Challenge? I could go on and on.

Get your questions and sketchbooks ready for the 24th, this will undoubtedly be an outstanding and inspiring visit.

For more information about women's incarceration or gender-informed justice practices, explore the following sites:

For additional examples of Normative Justice/Civic, consider the work of DLR Group, KMB Architects, HDR, and HOK in addition to kmd architects and HMC Architects.