Landscapes of Justice: Redefining the Prison Environment



Mitchellville, IA | Katie Hamerlinck, Student ASLA, Tim Buescher, Student ASLA, Austin Javellana, Student ASLA, Lauren Iversen, Student ASLA, Tara Bounds, Student ASLA, Jacob Brouillette, Student ASLA, Madison Dierks, Student ASLA | Undergraduate | Faculty Advisor: Julie Stevens, ASLA | Iowa State University | Client: Iowa Department of Corrections


Prisons are dichotomous spaces. Intended to both punish and heal, a prison possesses unique challenges in fostering behavioral change in people while maintaining security. To change the prison environment is to change the identity of prisons. This project, at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa aims to change perceptions of the prison environment and how it functions.

Through collaboration with the Iowa Department of Corrections and student design teams, a student-designed master plan has provided the backbone for a multiyear project to redefine the prison environment. By integrating the landscape into the daily lives of offenders and correctional personnel, this project sets the precedent for sustainable and therapeutic design within corrections. Furthermore, the collaboration exemplifies student and professional relations for similar projects to follow. Finally, by addressing the prison environment, we as designers, are providing the benefits of designed landscapes to an overlooked population.


The Netflix drama series "Orange is the New Black," has attracted a large audience by presenting a window into the marginalized community of a women’s prison. The episodes are fascinating character studies; scenarios dwell upon relationships among prisoners and between prisoners and others in and out of the prison. At the same time, the prison is represented as a dehumanizing environment: bare walls divide crowded, harshly-lit living spaces. In the few scenes that depict outdoor spaces, we see landscapes of reduction: bare ground and layers of razor-wire-topped fences.

The series inadvertently (and fortuitously) has raised awareness of design issues in women’s prisons. Empathizing with the characters, society can perhaps re-imagine the places where offenders live and envision how a different prison environment might improve prison outcomes. This project, a redesign of the landscape of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, is just such a new vision of the prison environment.

Far from Hollywood, the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) is located on 30 acres 20 miles east of Des Moines in Mitchellville, Iowa. A former girls’ reform school, the prison housed 56 offenders in 1983. By 2010 the campus housed 650 women, resembling the overcrowded scenes depicted on TV. This growing population and the Iowa Department of Corrections’ (IDOC) dedication to rehabilitation spurred a $68 million campus renovation. The institution is now a state-of-the-art facility specifically designed for needs of the women offenders, many of whom have suffered from physical and mental abuse, mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction. And most are also mothers.

The IDOC approached the landscape architecture department in 2010 with a simple request: design a planting plan to create a calming environment. Seeing possibilities beyond a planting plan students instead proposed a campus master plan that addressed the needs of the prison’s unique populations and better utilized its full 30 acres. Completed in 2012, the master plan has led to a multi-year project aimed at redefining the prison environment both physically and programmatically. So far, two spaces have been designed and built: the multipurpose outdoor classroom and the decompression deck. Although these are the focus of this submission, so is the goal of the overall project: to redefine the prison environment as a more humane and therapeutic landscape, one that mutually improves human and environmental health, promoting resiliency in both.

Our design at both the master plan and site level has used both research-based and participatory methods. Because there is little scholarly literature written specifically about prison landscapes, we researched and adapted theories from other fields to the prison environment. For example, we applied therapeutic garden design principles typically employed in healthcare settings; this required maintaining sight lines for security. We also applied environmental psychology theories such as the Kaplans’ model of environmental preference to the design of the outdoor classroom and attention restoration theory to the decompression deck.

We also sought to engage the prison community. Participatory design typically focuses on communities defined by geography, such as a neighborhood. Although defined by incarceration, the prison is still a community, and like any neighborhood, its residents have insights on current issues and future uses of their landscape. We engaged offenders and prison staff and officers through focus groups and dialog during design presentations. Such engagement allowed us to better understand the different concerns of the prison’s varied populations, from offenders to security directors to visitors.

Treatment classes are critical for offenders rehabilitation but are typically delivered in indoor spaces with poor lighting. The multipurpose outdoor classroom, the first project built from the master plan, takes classroom activities outdoors. Located between offender housing and the treatment center, the one-acre area contains five essential spaces: three classrooms, a lawn mound and an aspen grove. Two of these spaces, the writing and flexible classrooms, bordered by locally-sourced limestone seat walls, are scaled to accommodate a typical treatment class of 40 women and have been used for role-playing, writing and reflection activities. In contrast, the larger tiered classroom has been used for graduation and memorial ceremonies.

The lawn mound is a favorite spot for many offenders. During one of the first site visits, we learned that the women were required to stay on hard surfaces and not allowed to walk on grass to eliminate desire lines and muddy shoe problems. Our efforts changed that rule, and we worked with a turf grass professor to develop a turf mixture that would withstand excessive use. The lawn mound is now the only space where offenders are allowed to sit on the grass.

Similarly, the aspen grove is a result of requests from the offenders for a space to be alone, a rare experience in prison. Many of the women use the limestone cube seating to read, journal or participate in counseling sessions. When the Aspen leaves tremble, they create an ambient sound minimizing pervasive prison noises.

We designed the plant palette of the entire classroom area using Piet Oudolf’s layering method, but with strictly native and locally-sourced species. The classrooms are planted with a mix of forbs and grasses with a maximum height of 18” to accommodate security concerns. The Aspen Grove is underplanted with sedges and flower patches. Offenders will harvest seeds from these areas to support the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ seed harvesting program.

The second student design-build project grew out of the first. While constructing the outdoor classroom during summer 2013, students observed the staff congregating in the parking lot during shift change. It was clear that the job stress for correctional officers and administrative was tremendous. The idea of the Decompression Deck, a space where staff could get away or decompress at the end of their shift, emerged. A new team of students soon began focus groups with staff and officers, during which we learned more about prison procedure and the mental fatigue associated with working in incarceration.

The Decompression Deck was designed for an area adjacent to the main administrative building. Constructed in summer 2014 the three-tiered terrace provides spaces for individuals and groups, a cooking terrace for staff barbeque, planted screen walls for privacy, and trees for shade. A memorial garden was also created to honor the late Susan Hunter, former warden of ICIW.

These projects have allowed students and offenders to learn together as they laid out the site, built walls, laid brick, and planted trees. While the projects have provided students with professional insights into design and construction processes, the projects have also provided vocational training experience for more than 15 offenders. Students have also written grants and collaborated with local landscape suppliers to acquire materials. Trees Forever, a local nonprofit, donated $20,000 worth of trees to the prison. Utilizing the generous gift, the student design team planted a windbreak on site and trees around the perimeter providing a visual buffer for the surrounding community.

The long-term partnership we have developed with the IDOC and the ICIW has been our greatest strength. Students involved in this project in semesters prior to us have laid a foundation for our work, both through their designs and through building trust with the prison staff and offenders. As trust has grown, we have truly become partners with the prison offenders and administration because of both sides’ dedication to a shared vision. As the master plan is implemented, we see our role diminishing from being the leaders in redefining the prison landscape to becoming consultants in the prison’s ongoing efforts in the landscape. This shift will ensure the project’s long-term sustainability and its ability to serve as an example for other prisons outside of Iowa.

"An attempt to create an environment that in fact rehabilitates the prisoners."

- 2015 Awards Jury


Austin Javellana; Tara Bounds; Lauren Iversen; Madison Dierks; Katie Hamerlinck; Tim Buescher; Jacob Brouillette
Additional Project Credits:
Iowa Correctional Institution for Women: Offenders, Correctional Officers, Medical Personnel, and Administrative Staff
Iowa Department of Corrections
John Baldwin: Former Director of the Iowa Department of Corrections
Patti Wachtendorf: Warden of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women
Trees Forever


Anamosa Limestone: Webber Stone, Stone City, IA
Oxford Brick: Glen-Gery Brick Center, Des Moines, IA


Erosion Control Matting: Storm Water Supply, Des Moines, IA


Equipment Rental: Capital City Equipment, Des Moines, IA
Mulch: Mulch Mart, Waukee, IA
Trees: Iowa Native Trees & Shrubs, Woodward, IA
Trees: Bailey Nurseries, Newport, MN
Seed: Diversity Farms, Dedham, IA
Seed: Iowa Department of Natural Resources
Seed: Prairie Moon Nursery, Winona, MN
Seed: Allen Dan Seed, Winterset, IA
Turf Seed: United Seed, Des Moines, IA