Therapeutic Landscape Earns ASLA Award Iowa State Redefines Prison Environment
The Correctional Institute for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa, sports a new landscaping look for its 30-acre campus, thanks to Iowa State University and the students in its landscape architecture department. "Landscape of Justice: Redefining the Prison Environment" has drawn high praise from the American Society of Landscape Architecture, or ASLA.
What began as a joint effort involving two unlikely partners will culminate with Iowa State University receiving a national landscape architecture award.
The American Society of Landscape Architecture (ASLA) will honor the university's landscape architecture department with a Community Service Award of Excellence. The award is to be presented at the ASLA's Annual Meeting and Expo in Chicago from Nov. 6-10.
Iowa State is being recognized for a student-run project at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa. The university's ASLA entry is aptly titled: "Landscape of Justice: Redefining the Prison Environment." Assistant professor Julie Stevens coordinated and supervised this project.
Community Service Awards of Excellence recognize students for their landscape architecture work. This year, the ASLA considered 327 entries in six categories. Iowa State was one of only 23 Awards of Excellence winners, and was cited for a landscape design-build project at the women's prison in 2013 and 2014.
Five years earlier, the Iowa Department of Corrections asked the Iowa State landscape architecture students to come up with a landscape plan as part of a $68 million renovation of the 30-acre campus. At that time, the prison housed 650 inmates.
An outline of the prison project was submitted to the ASLA. In it, Iowa State said the students had a singular mission: "To redefine the prison environment as a more humane and therapeutic landscape."
"When we started this endeavor, we thought it would be great to make the prison environment more therapeutic to assist in rehabilitating incarcerated women," Stevens said in an email response to Landscape Communications.
Many of the offenders have suffered from physical and mental abuse, mental illness and drug and alcohol addictions. Most of them are also mothers. The Department of Corrections asked for a design plan that would create a "calming environment."
Iowa State students organized focus groups and discussions with both the correctional officers and inmates. Later, the offenders and staff worked alongside the landscape students to complete the renovation.
"This project is a collaboration in the deepest sense," Stevens said. "We couldn't do this without the passion of the women, the energy of the students and the enduring commitment from the Iowa Department of Corrections and prison officials."
Landscaping the prison yard has given both the Iowa State students and the inmates hands-on learning experiences.
"The students discovered the pitfalls and rewards of putting their designs into practice, while the offenders gain meaningful vocational and life skills," the Iowa State landscape architecture department said in its narrative that was sent to the ASLA.
"The true benefits of the project have gone so much deeper than we expected," Stevens noted.
Iowa State students designed and built three outdoor multipurpose classrooms, a lawn mound and an aspen grove in 2013. Two of the classrooms are bordered by limestone seat walls and accommodate groups of up to 40 women. There is also a larger, tiered classroom that is used for special events.
The lawn mound is the only place where the inmates are allowed to sit on the grass. The aspen grove offers them a chance to be alone and meditate. The women use the limestone seating to read, write in their journals or take part in counseling sessions.
In 2014, the students and inmates created an outdoor restorative space for the prison staff and officers. They also planted 260 trees and about one acre of native prairie flowers and grasses.
"In focus groups with staff, students learned about the daily job stressors and mental fatigue associated with working in a prison," an Iowa State newsletter states. "Constructed adjacent to the main administrative building, the decompression deck is a three-tiered terrace that provides spaces for individuals and groups, a cooking terrace for staff barbecues, planted screen walls for privacy and trees for shade."
And in 2015, Iowa State built a nearly one-acre garden of vegetables and herbs, and a healing garden for the prison's special needs population. But these projects could not be included in the ASLA application because they were completed past the deadline.
"Creating a garden is a hopeful thing even in an environment where hope is often a fleeting feeling," Stevens said. "Building these gardens together has created mutual understanding between college students and offenders and created a sense of pride for everyone."
The landscaping project at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women remains ongoing, and Department of Corrections officials have said they believe it will become "a national model for creating humane and restorative landscapes in a restrictive environment," the Iowa State newsletter states.
"This award is a sign that the profession of landscape architecture is expanding its capacity to reach even the most isolated and forgotten members of our society," Stevens added. "We need to see more justice related projects leading the way in the field. I'm confident that the next generation of students will do just that."