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Panama, Prisons, and a journey towards Human Rights

Panama, Prisons, and a journey towards Human Rights
Raphael Sperry - Fri Jul 31, 2015 @ 03:55PM
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The call from a Panamanian vice minister was a surprise: could I help with their assignment to replace a decrepit, abusive, crumbling old prison with a facility that would allow for real respect for prisoners’ human rights? As President of ADPSR I have been concerned about human rights and prison design, but ADPSR’s position is a critical one: we urge design professionals to focus on what needs to be built to help people live with dignity and address the poverty and injustice at the root of most crime – affordable housing, schools and universities, medical clinics, and the like – rather than undertake projects that fuel mass incarceration and at their worst can facilitate human rights violations.

Without hesitation I called my colleague and fellow ADPSR board member Deanna Van Buren, the leading designer of spaces for restorative justice and peacemaking. Neither of us wanted to design a prison for Panama – a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the Western hemisphere (after the U.S.) and well-known for its human rights violations. But the vice minister had been one of the foremost critics of the human rights failures of Panama, and was appointed to redress the problem. Even though executing the design would not be acceptable for us, we also couldn’t simply refuse to help these human rights advocates in a difficult situation.


Building on Deanna’s previous work doing design workshops with people inside of jails and prisons (often in partnership with students from outside), we came up with a plan to focus on the design process. Design is not just a way to get to built structures, but a powerful mode of thinking and acting that engages human creativity, intelligence, and the capacity for discovery. Because one thing we were certain of was that for anyone to make a “human rights respecting prison” in Panama would require discovering something very new: the number of arguably “good” prisons worldwide is vanishingly small, for those with cultural relevance to Latin America, it’s zero.


The key to Deanna’s workshop process is community engagement, so we focused our webinar to the vice minister on how to run community engagement workshops with people in prison, and how to apply what would be learned to the eventual design of a building intended to serve human rights. Our goal was to engage with the most basic element of human rights when it comes to prisons: people who are deprived of their liberty are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 10.1)

This approach had two-fold value. First, the only expertise for what design features would be important to the respect and dignity of people in Panamanian prisons is those people themselves: prisoners, guards, family visitors, etc. It is an all-too-common professional presumption that we understand the needs and wants of others and when so often we are separated by class, race, or other barriers. We proposed that the workshops ask simple questions such as “what kinds of places do you feel safe in.” It takes courage, delicacy, and good listening skills but design workshops can be excellent tools for drawing out potential occupants’ concerns and desires, whether through dialogue, storyboarding, collage, or other methods. We shared case studies with the Panamanians and shared Deanna’s amazing Design Justice Designing Spaces toolkit with which they can further train and prepare themselves and the team they hire for the project in the workshop methodology. (The Toolkit is freely available to all thanks to the Fetzer Institute – feel free to download your own copy.)

Second, and perhaps of even greater value, was the opportunity to demonstrate and enact dignity and respect between the prison department, prison guards, and the people in their custody through the design process itself. It is simply not respectful to force adults to live or work in a space that they have no control over and not even to ask them if there are simple changes that might make the place more palatable. So by asking everyone in the prison what they would like in the space, we were proposing a way to realize the dignified, respectful treatment that he vice minister hopes will become the new norm. In addition to design workshops at the programming and schematic design phases, we further recommended that they follow up by having their design team present the outcome of each phase to the user groups. After all, if the goal is to show respect, it’s not enough to ask someone’s opinion – you have to incorporate their input, or else it’s just a hollow exercise.

Deanna and I are both believers in the power of design to create better spaces and places, but we are just as much believers in the importance of the design process in getting to those better spaces and places. Whether it is the “integrative design process” being advanced by the newest version of the LEED rating system, or the more unusual process of going into a prison to hear from people inside about how to make safer, more dignified, and healthier spaces, the value lies not only in the destination, but in the journey itself.


For an excerpted copy of the webinar slides we presented, please email raphael (at) adpsr (dot) org or  dvanburen (at) fourmdesign (dot) com. The slides are English only.

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