In 1979 and 1980, I was a few years out of architecture school and had started to focus on interiors, which I thought affected the lives of the people who work, play, age, live or learn in them more than the exteriors did. I was asked to select, specify and document the finishes for a prison.

At that time, the latest research showed that if the holding cell was painted “bubble gum pink”, that color would help calm the arrested. This caught my interest. Although color research (the effects of color on people psychologically) was well documented, I had no idea that the color could have physical effects on people. For more on pink in prisons, see; Morton Walker, The Power of Color, (New York, Avery Publishing Group, 1991).

One of the priorities of the design team was to make the areas used by the guards to be more pleasant, since staff retention was a challenge. Of course, what did I suggest that we add? Color! I believed that color could humanize spaces that otherwise would be quite stressful.

It bothered me that the environment of the prisoners was so white and sterile, but the team insisted that they were being punished for wrong-doing. Note: To those of you who live in all white environments; do you find the all-white punishing?

Spin forward to 2019, fifty years later. The Brown alumni magazine, March/April 2019 issue has an article entitled, “Our Incarceration Addiction; why are so many Americans in jail?” The article points out that the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world!

A different take on color in prisons follows: looking at data from 2016, Blacks were 33% of Americans incarcerated (vs. 12% of the population) and Hispanics 23% of the incarcerated (vs. 16% of the population) and whites, although 64% of the population, account for 30% of prisoners. The article is fascinating for its research into why. To read more here’s the link

Color is only one factor in both race/social science and in design. Life is complex and there are no single solutions. The Brown Alumni Magazine points to a service of actions that could improve outcomes, reduce recidivism, and cost less than maintaining all of these prisons. Reducing sentence length, adding job training, increasing investments in poor neighborhoods, better funding of inner-city schools, and providing more affordable housing, might help prevent crime in the long run and improve lives.

Change is needed – both in our current system of mass incarceration and perhaps in mass-produced design trends – like all white. Let’s humanize our buildings and improve the lives of those who use them.

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