Students awarded for Iowa prison landscaping project

Ashley Green

An ISU landscape architecture project has received a national award from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

The focus of the project is the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) in Mitchellville, Iowa. The project first began in late 2010 when the Department of Corrections and the women’s prison contacted the Landscape Architecture Department at Iowa State.

Julie Stevens, assistant professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State, leads the project.

On Sept. 29 it was announced that the project had won the Community Service Award of Excellence from ASLA.

The award was for the work done in 2013 and 2014, titled “Landscapes of Justice: Redefining the Prison Environment.”

The focus of the 2013 group was to construct outdoor classrooms while the 2014 group focused on creating a restorative outdoor area. 

The area provided staff with a place to relax after work or during breaks.

“We, as students, met with the prison and facilitated different meetings with them,” said Austin Javellana, senior in landscape architecture. “We presented a variety of ideas and got their comments on what they wanted and then combined everything together.”

After three weeks of design, students spent the summer working side by side with inmates. Students were trained on how to interact with the inmates, from how to address them to how to be comfortable being around them.

It was intimidating for students to be so involved with the inmates, but after the first day both parties became used to it.

“They recognized us after that, and that we were somewhat relatable to them,” said Lauren Iversen, senior in landscape architecture. “We were doing the same tasks as them most of the time.”

Environmental psychology was implemented in the project.

The areas that were constructed, and continue to be constructed, aid inmates in their healing process. 

“We drew a lot of inspiration from our Iowan landscapes,” Stevens said. “People find comfort in things that feel a bit like home.”

Native plants were introduced that now draw wildlife, thanks to the care given by the inmates.

The ongoing project, according to the Department of Corrections, may become “a national model for creating humane and restorative landscapes in a restrictive environment.”

What made this project different from other projects was the students’ approach.

“It wasn’t just like, ‘Let’s go, let’s plant some trees,’ it was ‘Let’s go in with the women and with the prison; let’s figure out what’s most beneficial.’” Javellana said.

Also aiding the students was the support from Warden Patti Wachtendorf

“She’s very progessive,” Stevens said.

Future crews will continue to work with the foundations laid by previous crews in order to finish the master plan.