Did you know that Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate of women in the developed world? And many of the women who are incarcerated have children. Despite this, Oklahoma’s prison system makes few provisions for the health and community problems caused by the severance of the mother-child bonds. Research shows that these bonds are important for a number of reasons, including supporting well-being, reducing recidivism and lowering the chance a child will grow up to be incarcerated.

With this in mind, faculty at the University of Oklahoma have begun asking what can be done to implement “healthful environments” that support mother-child bonding in female prisons in Oklahoma. To help answer this question, professor of architecture Marjorie Callahan is offering a class this fall (2019) entitled “Rethinking Women’s Prisons.” Undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in this class are researching innovative prison facilities, with the goal of sharing their findings with key stakeholders, including the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

“Our investigation into American correctional facilities as retributive spaces has made clear the ethical obligation of the architecture field to health, safety, and welfare of all, even those incarcerated,” said architecture student Kimberly Huff. “This course highlights GCA divisions as tools for social change.”

Together with faculty, the students are carefully analyzing how Oklahoma’s women inmates currently experience prison environs without their children. Next, they will carry out precedent studies of Australia and England’s innovative prison environments that combat destructive incarceration cycles. Finally, students will research existing facilities that support incarcerated women and their families in the United States, including facilities in Washington and New York. Throughout the semester, students will also learn from guest lecturers who specialize in carceral studies.

“This course exemplifies our faculty and students’ commitment to using their skills and expertise to improve the lives of people in our communities,” said director of the division of architecture, Stephanie Pilat. “Professor Callahan is challenging students to consider how new approaches to prison design may foster healthier families and lower recidivism rates.”

Knowing the grave risks posed by the failure of the women’s prison system to maintain mother-child bonds motivates Professor Callahan and her students to look for innovative solutions. They hope that, by recommending strategic modifications of the built environment, they can help support healthy families.

Featured Image: Women are shown marching around the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma, as part of their Regimented Treatment Program.

Credit: Allison Herrera/PRI.