Editorial: Reforming Justice Architecture

Amid global anti-racism demonstrations, groups in several Canadian cities have called for a rethink of policing and police funding. What would this mean for the architecture of the justice system—from police stations, to courts and prisons? Some answers may already be visible.

A recent police station in the Cree community of Waskaganish, in northern Quebec, is conceived to be friendly, rather than foreboding. Designed by figurr, the building includes a daylit interior and exterior accented by wood-finished panels. “The client wanted a warm, community-oriented exterior,” says principal architect Stephen Rotman. “They asked for a clean, welcoming building.”

Eeyou Eenou Police Force Detachment Building in Waskaganish, Quebec, by figurr architects. Photo courtesy figurr architects
Eeyou Eenou Police Force Detachment Building in Waskaganish, Quebec, by figurr architects. Photo courtety figurr architects

Future court buildings may be informed by a new type of program. Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court, opened in 2008, co-locates justice, health, and social services. The model aims to address the offender’s needs and circumstances that led to criminal behaviour.

A similar approach is set to be piloted in Ontario, where four small-scale community-based justice centres will begin launching this summer. According to Dayna Arron, the project’s executive director, “the ministry is continuing—through a participatory design process […]—to ensure each Justice Centre reflects local voices and addresses local needs.” Planning for full-scale justice centres has also started.

What about jails—the darkest symbol of our justice systems? The Vancouver Community Court is located on the ground floor of a former remand centre, designed by Richard Henriquez in 1981 and renovated into a 96-unit social housing facility by his son, Gregory, in 2015. Designed with respect for its users, the remand centre included outdoor decks and a gymnasium in addition to all of the requisite security measures. The retrofitted housing project is similarly concerned with providing dignity to its inhabitants. “The poetic metaphor of transforming a jail into housing is the healthiest message any society can send to its next generation,” notes architect Gregory Henriquez.

250 Powell, exterior, as converted from a remand centre to social housing by architect Gregory Henriquez. Photo courtesy Henriquez Architects
250 Powell, interior. Photo courtesy Henriquez Architects

The closure of detention facilities is one measure of success in justice reform. In this regard, Canada has already shown significant leadership in its 2003 Youth Justice Act. Through measures like enabling police to issue warnings rather than making arrests, the rate of youth in Canadian incarceration facilities has decreased by 86 percent. On any given day in 1997, there were 3,825 youth in custody, compared to only 527 in 2015. As a result, provinces such as Ontario have closed many of their youth incarceration facilities.

“My understanding is that defunding is really meant to redirect some of the money being used for adversarial intervention, in favour of supporting activities (and requisite buildings) that treat the cause of deviant or difficult behaviour,” says Robert Boraks, director at Parkin Architects. “Nonetheless, there will still be occasions, perhaps, where there is a need to separate individuals from their communities. What is that form and operation to look like?”

Parkin Architects’ Rankin Inlet Healing Facility, which houses low- and medium-security inmates, offers a progressive model. It aims to create an environment that gives dignity to inmates as well as to staff. The facility—which locals refer to proudly as a Healing Centre, not a jail—has high-ceilinged common areas, a daylit gymnasium that resembles a community centre space, and spaces for traditional healing ceremonies. Inmates are only locked in individual rooms at night.

Rankin Inlet Healing Facility. Photo courtesy Parkin Architects
Rankin Inlet Healing Facility, by Parkin Architects, was completed in 2012. Photo courtesy Parkin Architects

The twin pressures of the protests and the pandemic may have a swift impact on new justice buildings. In early May, Ontario canceled plans for a new consolidated courthouse in Halton Region, citing the pressure to shift towards digital services underscored by the pandemic. Early in the shutdowns, Nova Scotia halved its prison population to mitigate the spread of infection.

It is an opportune time to rethink how such facilities can be constructed to honour community, offenders, and victims alike. It’s perhaps no coincidence that several of the most progressive facilities are in Indigenous communities. Traditionally, Indigenous peoples have a “radically different set of cultural imperatives,” writes former Crown Attorney Rupert Ross in Dancing with a Ghost. In relation to justice, “when damaging events do occur, [Indigenous communities] do whatever is possible to put those events behind them, to let bygones be bygones and to restore essential harmony.”

Such ideas of support and rehabilitation—rather than retribution—resonate with the present, when policing abuses are being brought to the foreground, and when a pandemic has underscored the interdependence of all members of society. A reform of policing will also entail a reform of the architecture of justice. Both will be welcome changes.