Landscape Architecture students explore new designs with women’s correctional facility

Kaitlin Miner

People don’t typically associate therapeutic gardens and amphitheaters with women’s correctional facilities. But landscape architecture students recently incorporated features like these into designs for such facilities.

In a seminar led by landscape architecture lecturer Julie Stevens, seminar students proposed new landscapes designs for the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville.

Late last fall, the Iowa Department of Corrections approached the President’s Office at Iowa State about collaborating on for new designs for the institution. When the idea was presented to the landscape architecture department, a seminar class to be taught by Stevens was developed for the spring. She chose to call it  “A Landscape Within: Plants and Prison.” 

“The lead architects of STV Architects in New York City came in for a meeting, and they were really sort of looking for a planting plan, which is a common misperception about what we do in landscape architecture. That’s a really important piece of this: a lot of people were [mis]educated on what kinds of things landscape architects do. We do a lot more than just planning where trees and shrubs go. This project presented a lot of opportunities to deal with more of the psychological issues that are involved with the landscape . . . Applying some of the principles we know about landscape perception and environmental psychology to a prison setting was the real trick to this project,” said Stevens.


The project involved several important steps that helped students create their designs for the facility.

“Each of the nine students started by reading first-hand accounts of women’s lives in prison, so women who had written autobiographies about their time behind bars — whether they’re still behind bars or not — and they started to understand what it’s like to be a woman who’s imprisoned,” Stevens said.

This step was helpful to many of the students, including third-year landscape architecture student Alicia Adams.

“Before we met with staff, we each read a book written by an offender that gave background knowledge and helped people see the situation better,” said Adams.

After students read the first-hand accounts of female offenders to better understand who they would be designing for, Stevens had the students focus on the psychological aspect of landscape design.

“They each chose an area of research, so each of them has a different focus area, and they sort of became subject matter experts. One student was studying abnormal and environmental psychology, one student studied surveillance — what it’s like to be watched all the time . . . so everyone had a different focus,” Stevens said.

Once the students had finished researching their chosen areas, they began applying the ideas they had learned to create design concepts as a team.

“I put them into teams of three based on their expertise, and then they collaborated on a design piece — the whole time sort of advocating from what they understood about the subject they studied,” Stevens said. “A lot of what we did was based around our opportunities to go to the prison. So we visited the site and toured. We held a design charrette — a condensed, design idea-generating workshop . . . Architects and engineers that are working at the site and staff from the prison all join[ed] students at the prison for about half a day. They just worked through as many design ideas as they could. The idea is that the people who have the answers to your questions are all in the room at the same time.”

The students’ design process was constrained by limitations that few landscape architects have to consider.

“At first we were told to let loose and design the space as we normally would, without attention to the constraints. Then we spoke to the staff and offenders, and that framed our ideas with constraints like sight lines,” Adams said of the design process.

“We had focus group sessions with the inmates and staff,” Stephens said. “They had a lot to say about what they wanted, and they also understand very clearly about what their constraints are.” 

After gathering information from the staff and offenders on what constraints were involved in designing the new landscape, the students incorporated these ideas into their designs to be presented to the institution.

“One team’s main design intent was to reduce recidivism. 95 percent of the women will leave prison, and we don’t want them to come back, so the idea is that there are different areas of the landscape that can provide vocational training. If they can learn how to grow vegetables or greenhouse technology, they could maybe, potentially, find a job in a greenhouse. One of the other [team’s designs] was to use color. The inmates were really adamant they wanted a lot of color, so they used color to designate different areas, and most of the color came through the plants. So if it was a really active space, the colors were reds and oranges, and if it was a calming space, like a therapeutic garden. They were using blues and purples. The third team wanted the landscape to be iconic, so they used the Fibonacci spiral and the golden mean. They were using this spiral to set up different areas. They had a space that was supposed to feel like home, and they had a place for contemplation that was near the chapel. [This design] really came back to the idea of surveillance because the balance in that project was trying to create the feeling that you are sheltered in some way,” said Stevens.

The students presented their designs last week to the offenders, who were very receptive to them.

“I heard a lot of oohing and aahing as the students were presenting, which is great. We present our work often, and it’s often well-received, but very rarely do you hear someone gasp when you present a color palette of plants,”  Stevens said. “The idea is that the women are actually doing all of the labor themselves and they’re growing the plants themselves, so part of the idea with the planting palette is we’re using plants that . . . they could start from seed and that they’re learning those skills as they do that.”

The staff at the facility was also impressed with the students’ designs. Since the money to fund landscape redesign is currently unavailable, the Iowa Department of Corrections wanted to bring students to get ideas for landscape projects down the road.

“We wanted out-of-the-box ideas. We wanted new, fresh ideas,” said Patti Wachtendorf, warden of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. “It’s a lot about attitude. Research tells us that a positive atmosphere [and] a positive environment can affect your attitude and your thought process. We want the women to look at their thoughts about what led them to prison. A lot of our program is cognitive-based, which is thinking and changing your thinking. If they have a positive, bright environment, the chances of them making positive changes are greater than in a drab, dreary environment. . .You can blend landscape with a prison successfully, so that people can make positive changes so that they don’t return to prison. That’s what we want.”

Wachtendorf said the staff was “blown away” by the designs the students presented.

“They like the outdoor break area — that’s something they don’t have now. They were excited that they thought about the staff. It’s not just all about the offenders but the staff that work here, as well. They were glad to be thought of,” said Wachtendorf.

The collaboration has benefited not only the correctional facility, but also the students and faculty involved.

“I watched [the students] go from having these preconceived notions to really understanding a population that most people forget . . . These women live around us. When they leave the prison they’re living amongst us all the time, and I think it’s really important that we consider ways to rehabilitate them. Most of them are there because they’ve suffered from severe abuse in their life . . . and I think that’s the warden’s mission. She wants a very calming, therapeutic landscape. They’ve had enough struggles in their lives that something needs to be positive,” Stevens said. 

Adams has also realized the benefits of her involvement in the landscape design project.

“It was something exciting and new and really rewarding. Not many prisons are sensitive to the rehabilitation process, and I think this could be a big case study on the work being done with offenders,” Adams said. “I think it has the potential to start a new area for landscape design.”