A Garden Behind Bars

Iowa State landscape architecture students help design and build a prison landscape.

By Dan Jost

Outdoor classrooms take shape at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women. Credit: Bob Elbert.
Outdoor classrooms take shape at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women. Credit: Bob Elbert.

After a long day of building at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, Meredith Ver Steeg, Student ASLA, took inventory of the tools. She had to make sure none of them had slipped into a prisoner’s pocket. “If a single hammer is missing, there will be no movement on this campus until that hammer is found,” explains Julie Stevens, ASLA, Ver Steeg’s landscape architecture professor at Iowa State University.

For much of this past summer, Stevens supervised five landscape architecture students and eight offenders as they constructed a complicated new landscape for the prison. Students learned to build walls, cut stone, and move earth with a skid loader.

When prison officials first contacted Iowa State’s landscape architecture department in 2010, they were just hoping for advice on where to plant trees. The prison was in the midst of a $68 million expansion, and no money had been earmarked for the landscape. “We told them we can do a planting plan,” Stevens says, “and other things, too.” Her students interviewed offenders, guards, and other prison officials and created a master plan for the landscape. The plan, inspired by studies that suggest natural environments can improve people’s moods and their ability to focus, encouraged prison officials to start conducting their classes and therapy groups outside.

In a studio class this spring, Garret Munch (pronounced “monk”), Student ASLA, and Nicholas King , Student ASLA, designed the landscape that was built this summer. The sloping site is only loosely surrounded by buildings. It’s divided into three parts: an aspen grove, a landform, and a long strip of classrooms. The upper classroom is called the writing classroom and will have fixed desks. The middle classroom is like an amphitheater with tiered seating, and the lower classroom will have movable seating that can be put into various configurations.

Iowa Correctional Institution for Women warden Patti Wachtendorf (center) stands with Iowa State landscape architecture students in an outdoor classroom they designed and built.

To save money, the walls and benches were built from limestone that had been rejected by other builders, Stevens says. And each stone is carefully anchored in place to make sure it can’t be used as a weapon.

Robin Bagby, the prison’s treatment director, looks forward to holding classes outside. Some of the sessions can be quite intense, she says. “Getting outdoors will have that serene feel. It will feel safer.” An offender’s interaction with the outdoors may provide some relief from the confines of a prison, but it will not be anything like a walk in the park. “Wherever you see a path, you’ll have a six-foot lawn buffer,” Stevens says. “If an offender steps onto that lawn, it will trigger a correctional officer to take notice, because [the offender] might be trying to hide something in the taller grass.”

When speaking with the local media, the warden, Patti Wachtendorf, has had to deflect criticism that the newly expanded prison will be like a Holiday Inn. “I’ve never been to a Holiday Inn that has razor wire around it,” she says. “The offenders still have very limited movement and no control over much of their day.”

But Wachtendorf judges the landscape collaboration a success and thinks it can serve as a model for other prisons. “The students got to have a more realistic view of offenders,” she says. “They got to see them as human beings. So someday, if they have an application from someone [who served time in prison], they won’t just throw it away.”

“I’m actually writing job recommendations for many of the offenders who’ve been on our crew,” Stevens says. One inmate who is slated to leave prison soon has already been offered a job as a stonemason.

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