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TEDWomen 2017

Deanna Van Buren: What a world without prisons could look like

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Deanna Van Buren designs restorative justice centers that, instead of taking the punitive approach used by a system focused on mass incarceration, treat crime as a breach of relationships and justice as a process where all stakeholders come together to repair that breach. With help and ideas from incarcerated men and women, Van Buren is creating dynamic spaces that provide safe venues for dialogue and reconciliation; employment and job training; and social services to help keep people from entering the justice system in the first place. "Imagine a world without prisons," Van Buren says. "And join me in creating all the things that we could build instead."

- Activist, architect, artist
Deanna Van Buren is an architect who designs spaces for peacemaking, inside and out. Full bio

A lot of people call me
a "justice architect."
00:12
But I don't design prisons.
00:18
I don't design jails.
00:21
I don't design detention centers,
and I don't even design courthouses.
00:23
All the same, I get a call every week,
00:28
saying, "OK, but you design
better prisons, right?
00:32
You know, like those pretty ones
they're building in Europe."
00:37
And I always pause.
00:40
And I invite them,
00:43
and I invite you today,
00:45
to imagine a world without prisons.
00:47
What does that justice feel and look like?
00:51
What do we need to build to get there?
00:55
I'd like to show you some ideas today
of things that we're building.
00:59
And I'm going to start
with an early prototype.
01:03
This I built when I was five.
01:06
I call it "the healing hut."
01:08
And I built it after I got
sent home from school
01:11
for punching this kid in the face
because he called me the N-word.
01:14
OK, he deserved it.
01:18
It happened a lot, though,
01:20
because my family had desegregated
a white community in rural Virginia.
01:22
And I was really scared.
01:28
I was afraid.
01:30
I was angry.
01:32
And so I would run into the forest,
and I would build these little huts.
01:34
They were made out of twigs and leaves
and blankets I had taken from my mom.
01:37
And as the light would stream
into my refuge,
01:42
I would feel at peace.
01:47
Despite my efforts to comfort myself,
01:51
I still left my community
as soon as I could,
01:53
and I went to architecture school
01:56
and then into a professional career
designing shopping centers,
01:58
homes for the wealthy
02:02
and office buildings,
02:03
until I stepped into a prison
for the first time.
02:06
It was the Chester State
Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania.
02:10
And my friend, she invited me there
02:14
to work with some
of her incarcerated students
02:16
and teach them about
the positive power of design.
02:18
The irony is so obvious, right?
02:22
As I approached this concrete building,
these tiny little windows,
02:24
barbed wire, high walls,
observation towers,
02:28
and on the inside,
these cold, hard spaces,
02:32
little light or air,
02:36
the guards are screaming,
the doors are clanking,
02:38
there's a wall of cells filled with
so many black and brown bodies.
02:41
And I realized that what I was seeing
02:47
was the end result of our racist policies
that had caused mass incarceration.
02:50
But as an architect, what I was seeing
02:55
was how a prison is the worst
building type we could have created
02:58
to address the harm
that we're doing to one another.
03:02
I thought, "Well, could I design
an alternative to this,
03:06
other than building a prettier prison?"
03:08
It didn't feel good to me;
it still doesn't feel good.
03:10
But back then, I just
didn't know what to do.
03:14
What do we build instead of this?
03:17
And then I heard
about restorative justice.
03:20
I felt at peace again,
03:23
because here was an alternative system
03:26
that says when a crime is committed,
it is a breach of relationship,
03:29
that the needs of those
who have been harmed
03:34
must be addressed first;
03:37
that those who have committed the offense
03:39
have an obligation to make amends.
03:42
And what they are
are really intense dialogues,
03:45
where all stakeholders come together
to find a way to repair the breach.
03:47
Early data shows that
restorative justice builds empathy;
03:53
that it reduces violent reoffending
by up to 75 percent;
03:57
that it eases PTSD in survivors
of the most severe violence.
04:02
And because of these reasons,
04:06
we see prosecutors and judges
and district attorneys
04:08
starting to divert cases out of court
and into restorative justice
04:11
so that some people never
touch the system altogether.
04:15
And so I thought, "Well, damn --
why aren't we designing for this system?"
04:19
(Applause)
04:22
Instead of building prisons,
04:24
we should be building spaces
to amplify restorative justice.
04:26
And so I started in schools,
04:30
because suspensions and expulsions
04:33
have been fueling the pathway
to prison for decades.
04:37
And many school districts --
probably some of your own --
04:40
are turning to restorative justice
as an alternative.
04:43
So, my first project -- I just turned
this dirty little storage room
04:48
into a peacemaking room
for a program in a high school
04:51
in my hometown of Oakland.
04:55
And after we were done, the director said
04:57
that the circles
she was holding in this space
05:01
were more powerful in bringing
the community together
05:03
after fighting at school
and gun violence in the community,
05:06
and that students and teachers
started to come here
05:10
just because they saw it
as a space of refuge.
05:13
So what was happening is that the space
was amplifying the effects of the process.
05:17
OK, then I did something
that architects always do, y'all.
05:24
I was like, I'm going to build
something massive now, right?
05:29
I'm going to build the world's first
restorative justice center all by myself.
05:32
And it's going to be
a beautiful figure on the skyline,
05:38
like a beacon in the night.
05:41
Thousands of people will come here
instead of going to court.
05:43
I will single-handedly
end mass incarceration
05:46
and win lots of design awards.
05:49
(Laughter)
05:51
And then I checked myself --
05:54
(Laughter)
05:56
because here's the deal:
05:57
we are incarcerating more
of our citizens per capita
06:00
than any country in the world.
06:03
And the fastest-growing
population there are black women.
06:05
Ninety-five percent
of all these folks are coming home.
06:08
And most of them are survivors of severe
sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
06:13
They have literally been
on both sides of the harm.
06:20
So I thought, uh, maybe I should ask them
06:23
what we should build instead of prisons.
06:25
So I returned with
a restorative justice expert,
06:29
and we started to run
the country's first design studios
06:33
with incarcerated men and women
06:36
around the intersection
of restorative justice and design.
06:38
And it was transformative for me.
06:42
I saw all these people behind walls
in a totally different way.
06:43
These were souls deeply committed
to their personal transformation
06:48
and being accountable.
06:52
They were creative, they were visionary.
06:54
Danny is one of those souls.
06:58
He's been incarcerated
at San Quentin for 27 years
07:01
for taking a life at the age of 21.
07:05
From the very beginning,
07:09
he's been focused
on being accountable for that act
07:11
and doing his best to make amends
from behind bars.
07:14
He brought that work into a design
for a community center
07:18
for reconciliation and wellness.
07:24
It was a beautiful design, right?
07:27
So it's this green campus
filled with these circular structures
07:29
for victim and offender dialogue.
07:32
And when he presented the project to me,
07:35
he started crying.
07:37
He said, "After being in the brutality
of San Quentin for so long,
07:40
we don't think reconciliation will happen.
07:45
This design is for a place that fulfills
the promise of restorative justice.
07:49
And it feels closer now."
07:55
I know for a fact
07:58
that just the visualization of spaces
for restorative justice and healing
08:01
are transformative.
08:05
I've seen it in our workshops
over and over again.
08:07
But I think we know that just visualizing
these spaces is not enough.
08:09
We have to build them.
08:13
And so I started to look
for justice innovators.
08:16
They are not easy to find.
08:20
But I found one.
08:22
I found the Center for Court Innovation.
08:24
They were bringing Native American
peacemaking practices
08:27
into a non-Native community
08:30
for the very first time
in the United States.
08:32
And I approached them, and I said,
08:35
"OK, well, as you set up your process,
08:37
could I work with the community
to design a peacemaking center?"
08:40
And they said yes.
08:45
Thank God, because
I had no backup to these guys.
08:47
And so, in the Near Westside
of Syracuse, New York,
08:51
we started to run design workshops
with the community
08:55
to both locate and reenvision
an old drug house
08:58
to be a peacemaking center.
09:02
The Near Westside
Peacemaking Project is complete.
09:04
And they are already running
over 80 circles a year,
09:07
with a very interesting outcome,
09:10
and that it is the space itself
09:12
that's convincing people
to engage in peacemaking
09:14
for the very first time in their lives.
09:16
Isabel and her daughter are some
of those community members.
09:19
And they had been referred to peacemaking
09:22
to heal their relationship
after a history of family abuse,
09:25
sexual abuse
09:29
and other issues that they'd been having
in their own family
09:30
and the community.
09:33
And, you know, Isabel didn't want
to do peacemaking.
09:35
She was like, "This is just
like going to court.
09:37
What is this peacemaking stuff?"
09:40
But when she showed up,
09:41
she was stressed, she was anxious.
09:43
But when she got in,
she kind of looked around,
09:46
and she settled in.
09:48
And she turned
to the coordinator and said,
09:50
"I feel comfortable here -- at ease.
09:53
It's homey."
09:57
Isabel and her daughter
made a decision that day
10:00
to engage and complete
the peacemaking process.
10:02
And today, their relationship
is transformed;
10:05
they're doing really well
and they're healing.
10:08
So after this project,
I didn't go into a thing
10:12
where I'm going to make a huge
peacemaking center.
10:15
I did want to have peacemaking
centers in every community.
10:17
But then a new idea emerged.
10:22
I was doing a workshop
in Santa Rita Jail in California,
10:25
and one of our incarcerated
designers, Doug, said,
10:30
"Yeah, you know, repairing the harm,
getting back on my feet, healing --
10:33
really important.
10:37
But the reality is, Deanna,
when I get home,
10:38
I don't have anywhere to go.
10:41
I have no job -- who's going to hire me?
10:43
I'm just going to end up back here."
10:45
And you know what, he's right,
10:47
because 60 to 75 percent of those
returning to their communities
10:49
will be unemployed
a year after their release.
10:53
We also know, if you can't meet
your basic economic needs,
10:57
you're going to commit crime --
11:00
any of us would do that.
11:02
So instead of building prisons,
11:05
what we could build are spaces
for job training and entrepreneurship.
11:08
These are spaces for what we call
"restorative economics."
11:13
Located in East Oakland, California,
11:17
"Restore Oakland" will be
the country’s first center
11:20
for restorative justice
and restorative economics.
11:23
(Applause)
11:25
So here's what we're going to do.
11:31
We're going to gut this building
and turn it into three things.
11:33
First, a restaurant called "Colors,"
11:36
that will break the racial divide
in the restaurant industry
11:38
by training low-wage restaurant workers
11:41
to get living-wage jobs in fine dining.
11:43
It does not matter if you have
a criminal record or not.
11:45
On the second floor,
we have bright, open, airy spaces
11:48
to support a constellation
of activist organizations
11:52
to amplify their cry
of "Healthcare Not Handcuffs,"
11:55
and "Housing as a human right."
11:59
And third, the county's first
dedicated space for restorative justice,
12:01
filled with nature, color,
texture and spaces of refuge
12:06
to support the dialogues here.
12:10
This project breaks ground
in just two months.
12:12
And we have plans to replicate it
12:15
in Washington D.C., Detroit,
New York and New Orleans.
12:17
(Applause)
12:20
So you've seen two things
we can build instead of prisons.
12:30
And look, the price point is better.
12:33
For one jail, we can build
30 restorative justice centers.
12:36
(Applause)
12:40
That is a better use of your tax dollars.
12:42
So I want to build all of these.
12:45
But building buildings
is a really heavy lift.
12:48
It takes time.
12:51
And what was happening
in the communities that I was serving
12:53
is we were losing people every week
to gun violence and mass incarceration.
12:56
We needed to serve more people and faster
and keep them out of the system.
13:01
And a new idea emerged from the community,
13:06
one that was a lot lighter on its feet.
13:09
Instead of building prisons,
we could build villages on wheels.
13:12
It's called the Pop-Up Resource Village,
13:18
and it brings an entire
constellation of resources
13:21
to isolated communities
in the greater San Francisco area,
13:24
including mobile medical,
social services and pop-up shops.
13:27
And so what we're doing now
13:32
is we're building this whole village
with the community,
13:33
starting with transforming municipal buses
into classrooms on wheels
13:36
that bring GED and high school
education across turf lines.
13:41
(Applause)
13:45
We will serve thousands
of more students with this.
13:46
We're creating mobile spaces of refuge
13:49
for women released from jail
in the middle of the night,
13:51
at their most vulnerable.
13:54
Next summer, the village will launch,
and it pops up every single week,
13:56
expanding to more and more
communities as it goes.
14:00
So look out for it.
14:04
(Applause)
14:05
So what do we build instead of prisons?
14:10
We've looked at three things:
14:13
peacemaking centers,
14:15
centers for restorative justice
and restorative economics
14:16
and pop-up villages.
14:20
But I'm telling you,
I have a list a mile long.
14:23
This is customized housing for youth
transitioning out of foster care.
14:27
These are reentry centers for women
to reunite with their children.
14:31
These are spaces
for survivors of violence.
14:34
These are spaces
that address the root causes
14:37
of mass incarceration.
14:40
And not a single one of them
is a jail or a prison.
14:42
Activist, philosopher, writer
Cornel West says
14:48
that "Justice is what love
looks like in public."
14:53
So with this in mind,
I ask you one more time
14:56
to imagine a world without prisons,
15:01
and join me in creating all the things
that we could build instead.
15:05
Thank you.
15:09
(Applause)
15:10

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About the speaker:

Deanna Van Buren - Activist, architect, artist
Deanna Van Buren is an architect who designs spaces for peacemaking, inside and out.

Why you should listen

After practicing as a corporate architect for 12 years, Deanna Van Buren left her job to become an activist architect, and for the past six years she has been designing restorative justice centers instead of prisons in order to end the age of mass incarceration. She's the co-founder and design director of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, based in Oakland, California. She's also interested in designing virtual spaces for peacemaking and was the lead architect for The Witness.

More profile about the speaker
Deanna Van Buren | Speaker | TED.com