Spatial justice: Legitimacy through openness, transparency and inclusiveness in correctional design.

Author:John, Victor J. St.

Across the criminal justice system, policymakers, practitioners and researchers have echoed the necessity for justice institutions to be seen as fair, humane and responsive to the needs of those they serve. When individuals encountering the justice system believe in its authority, they are more likely to cooperate even when cooperation goes against their desired outcomes. This is especially important in situations where authority figures are outnumbered, where these dynamics take place in an enclosed environment and where the same people are encountered consistently over the course of many months.

Noted philosopher Michel Foucault once wrote that the issue with prison is not whether the institution is "too harsh or too aseptic, too primitive or too efficient, but its very materiality as an instrument and vector of power." Correctional facilities play an important role within the criminal justice system, not just as a destination of last resort, but as the apex of state control and starkest example of how a government views its citizens. This is especially true of jails because the number of citizens cycling in and out is greater than that of prisons, they have greater proximity to public view and a larger number of non-incarcerated individuals enter and exit these facilities.

Jurisdictions that house inmates in cramped and grimy conditions are rightfully interpreted to care less about fair treatment. If citizens believe that the government loses sight of their humanity in the face of any conviction--even for relatively minor infractions like missing a traffic-court date--it becomes easier to believe that officials disregard them in general. In fact, researchers, including University of Michigan's Derrick Franke--have shown that one's correctional experience can significantly alter their view of the entire criminal justice system. While there are several pathways to achieving greater legitimacy, even among violators of the law--procedural and distributive justice, for example--spatial justice is an area that is often under-considered and under-utilized. A spatial justice perspective considers how space can be designed to respect human dignity, enhance perceptions of fairness and facilitate substantive justice.

An open, transparent and inclusive (OTI) solution

One way of addressing recurrent issues around security, order and conditions in jails and prisons is to revisit their overall architectural design. Last fall, researchers at the Guardian Initiative began seeking ways to bring "welcomeness" to essential government structures, correctional buildings included. Architects have explored interaction between psychology and built spaces for decades, providing a rich source of literature on "affective architecture." Moreover, criminal justice thinkers have been exploring security and order through architecture for nearly as long. However, there are little-to-no theoretical frameworks for how to use affective architecture to increase perceptions of justice, fairness and positivity in criminal justice buildings, and the task of the Guardian Initiative, a research initiative funded and produced by MOCA-PM, became to help build this body of work. This past spring, its research team put forward a theory for building more welcoming police buildings, and, this summer, proposed how to encourage voters to support public bonds...

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