Leon and Gordana Gerskovic

Kenneth Ricci, FAIA, is president and founder of RicciGreeneAssociates, a 35-person New York City–based planning and design firm specializing in justice facilities at the federal, state, and local levels. A proponent of “normative design,” Ricci wants to humanize the often inhuman experience of incarceration. Considering that more than 1 percent of the U.S. population is currently locked up, and the number of federal prisons alone has more than tripled in the last 60 years, that’s a tall order.

When I went to school in the ’60s, we always believed that architecture should have a social dimension. So I found the area of corrections and detention to be fascinating from several points of view—social, technical, design, environmental, and behavioral. In our thesis year, I decided to do a youth correctional center on Rikers Island [in New York]. I determined then and there that I wanted to have my own business specializing in justice facilities, and that’s what I did. I opened up my own firm when I was 27 years old.

The inmate needs are fascinating to me, as well as the needs of the staff. If you haven’t been convicted, you still have the basic rights of a person in the free world: the right to a safe environment, the right to see visitors, and the right to see an attorney. You also have the right to be able to secure your own personal belongings—the few that you have, like your toothbrush and your magazines. So, yes, the person may have to be detained in a jail prior to trial, but let’s do so in the least-restrictive setting where the expectation of normal behavior is created.

We follow the philosophy of direct supervision, where there is no separation between the officer and the inmates. Inmates can approach the officers and speak to them, and the inmates feel safer because they have an officer present. They feel less need to join gangs or make weapons. Direct supervision actually lowers the amount of assaults, inmate-on-inmate or inmate-on-officer.

There is a baseline of needs, and an inmate’s are not that different from anyone else’s. The question is how you reconcile those needs with the needs for security. We don’t use bars. We don’t use razor ribbon. We design the building so that the exterior envelope of the building is the secure perimeter. The least-restrictive setting—where sunlight is coming in and hitting the floor, where you have reduced noise, where you have temperature controls—makes a very calm environment. Rehabilitation services—such as counseling, high-school-equivalency-degree programs, literacy help, and skills for daily living are available—and our design philosophy simply makes it easier to run those programs.

We believe that environment cues behavior, and there has been a tremendous movement in improving correctional facilities. Our work has a vision, a mission, and an operational plan. There is a rigor to what we do, and it’s founded on humanizing these environments.