Iowa State University students design and build therapeutic prison landscape

September 5, 2013 -  By

A partnership between the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) in Mitchellville, Iowa, and Iowa State University’s Department of Landscape Architecture is doubling as an assurance that  95 percent of offenders return home with improved attitudes and life skills and students graduate with a one-acre developed landscape in use to show potential employers—an accomplishment few can claim before their careers begin.

They’re creating an outdoor environment that transcends confinement to generate therapeutic and rehabilitative effects.

This summer, five students and their professor constructed a series of multipurpose outdoor classrooms in the center of ICIW’s new 30-acre campus. The classrooms will provide offenders, counselors and staff with a restorative outdoor environment for classes, counseling and vocational training. The project is part of a $68 million expansion and modernization, which includes a landscape master plan designed by Iowa State students. The new facility will open this fall.

Believed to be the first of its kind, John Baldwin, director of the Iowa Department of Corrections, said he expects the project to “become a national model for bringing humane and therapeutic landscapes into a very restrictive environment.”

During the past two years, fourth- and fifth-year students in Assistant Professor Julie Stevens’ landscape architecture studio classes created ideas for a master plan for the prison landscape. Throughout the design phase, Stevens and her students consulted with ICIW administrators and the project architects (STV in New York, and Design Alliance in Waukee, Iowa) and conducted focus groups with offenders and staff. Their comments guided the design in combination with academic concepts about therapeutic gardens.

“Designing and building the classrooms have provided us with an outdoor classroom, too. These students have learned so much out here,” Stevens said. “There are a million lessons to be learned on a project site like this.”

And the students have done it all—from operating a Bobcat and excavator to cutting limestone blocks and shimming walls. They’ve learned the importance of paying attention to details.

“The hands-on experience has had a far greater impact on their understanding than I could ever provide in a classroom with slides,” Stevens said.

Colten McDermott, a senior from Newton, Iowa, said: “We’ve really learned how design translates into construction. It’s helped us think about how something will be experienced. …This really helps us understand the construction process and how to make needed changes and adjustments in the design as we go along.”

Brandon Pentico, a senior from Perry, Iowa, said he’s taken from the project a lesson in flexibility.

“The design is never done; things will change,” Pentico said. “It’s important to have the ability to anticipate what might change and be flexible.”

Students aren’t the only ones to gain experience in landscape architecture, though.

Working alongside them are six offenders from the Newton Correctional Release Center-Minimum Security.

One offender from the minimum-security facility said: “This puts me back into the community, and I try to get everything I can out of this experience. It will help me in the long run. I’ve learned people skills and about landscape architecture as a career and different aspects of design.”

And the therapeutic outdoor classroom approach has shown promise for offenders, said Patti Wachtendorf, ICIW warden.

The recidivism rate for women who complete the treatment program is 12 percent compared to 25 percent for the rest of the ICIW population.

In the coming years, Stevens and her students will continue to work with the ICIW to design and build the landscape. In September, they’ll plant aspens and oaks with a crew of female offenders, and return next spring to do prairie planting.

“I can’t wait to see the women using the spaces our students have worked so hard to design and build,” Stevens said.

LM Staff

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