Why Putting A College Next Door To A Prison Might Be A Good Idea

A better architecture of incarceration? With incredibly high counts of people in prison in the U.S., and many returning back to jail multiple times, one designer has a proposal on how to break the cycle.

The United States has more citizens in prison than any other country in the world, by far. At latest count, if all U.S. prisoners were in one place, they’d make up the fourth largest city in the nation. Even worse, locking people up doesn’t work very well–67% of former inmates eventually end up in prison again.


How can prisoners be better prepared for life outside? As one solution, recent architecture graduate Glen Santayana proposed a design for a joint prison and school, called “PriSchool,” for his thesis at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

The design doesn’t call for classrooms inside a prison, but a fully separate school that’s directly attached. At the school, college students would study criminology and have unique access to the prison next door. Prisoners, in turn, would have the chance attend classes.

Santayana thinks having separate spaces for the school and prison was important to his design: “Movement–both physically and cognitively–from one space to another is instrumental to the rehabilitation process,” he says. “Traditionally, prisoners relatively inhabit the same spaces every day, but a change in environment has the capacity to reshape the focus of their efforts towards areas that help with their eventual reintegration into society.”

In addition, he says, the criminology students would need to be separate from the main prison itself for security reasons. (The prisoners would all be non-violent offenders, but obviously a prison is not the safest place).

The complex would also include a pre-release building where prisoners near the end of their sentence would have the opportunity to take more classes to build specific practical skills, like woodworking or computer programming.

Santayana suggests that the PriSchool could be sited in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood called Brownsville, surrounded by the so-called “million dollar blocks”–areas with so much crime that that state is spending over a million dollars a year to imprison residents from each neighborhood.


“I wanted to locate my project in the heart of where most of the inmates are coming from to continue and strengthen family ties, so that when they are released, they can return home with a better chance of reassimilation,” Santayana says.

“Imagine a father being sent away for 20-plus years to only return home to a family dynamic that has drastically changed and the children have all grown up. One of the most difficult challenges for ex-convicts is transitioning back into society, particularly when they’ve spent years away from their families during incarceration.”

Though the design is only conceptual, there’s a growing push in architecture generally for better prison design. Architect Raphael Sperry has been leading a push to get the American Institute of Architects to forbid members from designing solitary confinement units or execution chambers, and others are also working on designs that focus on rehabilitation.

To get his design built, Santayana says that raising awareness would be the biggest factor. To help convince neighbors that they’d actually want a prison in their backyard, he’s also built another feature into the design: A community center for the public with everything from a recording studio and daycare to a community garden. Here’s hoping this can actually come to life someday.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.