Landscape architecture students construct therapeutic environment for inmates


Will Ash/Iowa State Daily

Colten McDermott, left, and Branden Pentico, right, discussing some of the pitfalls, unpredictability and rewarding moments of working on their first large project and job.

Mackensie Moore

Some people don’t think of landscape architecture as a form of rehabilitation, but ISU students are showing just how therapeutic landscape architecture can be.

In 2010, Iowa State’s department of landscape architecture was approached by the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women to design and build a therapeutic landscape environment for its campus in Mitchellville, Iowa.

Iowa State’s landscape architecture program is the only one in Iowa, and the Department of Corrections then asked Julie Stevens, associate professor of landscape architecture, if she could have students help design and create an environment that would aid in rehabilitation of inmates.

“Research shows that even a few minutes outside can be therapeutic,” Stevens said.

Because about 95 percent of the women in the facility will be released, the institution offers classes, vocational training and victim counseling for the inmates.

For this project, Stevens brought together students from the landscape architecture program.

Beginning with a research seminar to understand what exactly the correctional facility would need, students in later semesters constructed the designs.

The Department of Corrections wanted a therapeutic environment but one that wouldn’t get in the way of surveillance. With the use of stonewalls, pathways, shaded seating areas and low hedges, the group achieved this objective. 

The 1 acre space will be used for classes for the facility residents. From spaces that can contain about 150 women to small areas for one-on-one counseling sessions, the classes will help some of the women earn a high school diploma.

“They have to serve their time, this is no vacation for them,”  Stevens said. “But while they’re there, we want to eliminate as many conflicts as possible,”

This past summer was the beginning of the construction process. Installing walls and pathways, five students from Iowa State traveled to Mitchellville daily to work on the biggest landscape project many of them had ever been part of.

“The scale of this project is bigger than most of us have ever touched. Although we’ve designed bigger sites, we’ve never actually constructed a project like this before,” said Branden Pentico, senior in landscape architecture.

This opportunity has allowed students to develop skills that will help translate into their future careers.

Colten McDermott, senior in landscape architecture, said they not only learned to work with other business professionals such as engineers, project managers and electricians, they also learned how to work with offenders.

“None of us were sure how working with the offenders would be but it was great to get to know them and see how their attitudes changed throughout the process,” McDermott said.

While this project is beneficial for the students it will also help the offenders. The classes and the natural therapy of this environment will help them learn valuable skills that will help them to readjust and start their lives back over.

“The fact that the project is using landscape architecture as a service is something that’s unknown amongst others,” said Meredith Ver Steeg, senior in landscape architecture and research assistant for Stevens. “It shows that we can do more.”

The project is not over yet, next summer the students will return to plant trees and other vegetation to complete the therapeutic environment.