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Students design jail facility focused on mental health, inmate experience

Jail Cell
Posted at 1:51 PM, Jan 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-04 16:51:30-05

The way jails are being designed is changing.

“Our building is pretty radical when you look at it. I kind of compare it to a concept car. It’s the concept car and it's going to be refined throughout the process,” J.D. Zogg, an architecture student at the University of Oklahoma, said.

He led a 17-student project at the University of Oklahoma to redesign a nearby jail.

“How do we create this jail that actually serves its purpose and creates a better society, because that's the overall goal, right?” he explained.

The student team behind “Reconstructing Incarceration” focused on promoting better mental health outcomes for inmates. The project was in an exhibition at the end of last year.

“I just think architecture is a continuum in these inmates' lives that can really make a difference,” said Marjorie P. Callahan, a professor at the University of Oklahoma Gibbs College of Architecture.

Callahan, a licensed architect, said they focused on a lot of design elements to help with mental health.

“Architecture can really set an atmosphere,” she said.

“Being able to see trees, plants, beautiful landscape, getting the natural light into the cells as much as possible, and actually having access to go outside. Those are the three things that are our big goals that will hopefully get transferred into the new jail that will be built,” Zogg added.

A redesign for the Oklahoma County jail is something that has been a long time in the making.

“Our firm has been looking at the Oklahoma County jail for, I can literally say, decades,” John Semtner, a principal at FSB Architects & Engineers, said.

The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council chose the local firm as the infrastructure consultant to address the jail’s struggles.

Semtner is a professional engineer.

“We've toured several facilities as part of this project and others. We worked in several. When you walk into them they’re clean, they're respectful, they are dignified. When you walk into the Oklahoma County jail, you just want to leave and go take a shower,” he said.

“We really appreciated a lot of what the university's project brought forth. It aligns with a lot of the national trends about bringing light into spaces, about really trying to create a better environment for people to reform,” Semtner said.

Reform is something psychologist Apryl Alexander said needs to be focused on.

“There's a movement now toward more humane correctional design. We know a lot of prison settings are drab, they’re poorly ventilated, they're not well lit. All these things have an impact on your brain and how you function in those settings,” Alexander, a professor in forensic psychology at the University of Denver, said.

“If you go to facilities in Sweden or Norway, you’ll see a lot of their correctional settings, even for youth, are more like community centers. Places that are supportive, nurturing,” she explained.

Alexander said helping inmates proactively will benefit communities.

“About 70 percent of individuals who are in our jails and prisons are going to return to our communities. So we want to make sure they're safe, we want to make sure they’re successful in the community when they return. We need to support their mental health,” she said.

The jail’s trust and the Oklahoma County Commissioners approved building a new jail. The design is still being created.

Recommendations from the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council include elements like providing mental health treatment, modernizing pod design, and providing space for education and other programs. Elements like this are in line with the “Reconstructing Incarceration” design created by the university’s team.

“Buildings can't solve all of the problems, but they sure can make problems worse,” Semtner said.