Prisoners help shape award-winning landscaping project

ISU students pose with ICIW Warden Patti Wachtendorf in one of the outdoor classrooms. Photo: Bob Elbert, Iowa State UniversityISU students pose with ICIW Warden Patti Wachtendorf in one of the outdoor classrooms.
Photo: Bob Elbert, Iowa State University

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has presented its Community Service Award of Excellence to Iowa State University students who worked on creating a therapeutic landscape at a women’s prison.

The project started five years ago, when the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) and the Department of Corrections approached the Landscape Architecture Department at Iowa State.

Along with her students, Assistant Professor Julie Stevens developed a master plan for the prison landscape, often consulting both offenders and prison staff to help guide the design process.

“A lot of the design is based on Stephen Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theories, which suggest people regain focus after they’ve spent some time outdoors,” Stevens told Iowa State University News Service.

The finished master plan includes a series of multipurpose outdoor classrooms, along with a deck for correctional officers to take a break. The project is part of a $68 million expansion of the ICIW.

“The environment we give the women makes a difference in their attitudes and mentality,” said ICIW Warden Patti Wachtendorf.

In 2013, the students focused on creating the outdoor classrooms and gained hands-on experience while working with prisoners from the Newton Correctional Release Center-Minimum Security.

“The students see offenders through different eyes,” Wachtendorf said. “They see them as real people, as humans. Someday in the future, they might be in a position to hire an ex-offender. We can’t put a price on that.”

The 2014 group focused on creating a restorative outdoor area and planted native plants that are now cared for by the inmates.

“It wasn’t just like, ‘Let’s go, let’s plant some trees.’ It was ‘Let’s go in with the women and with the prison; let’s figure out what’s the most beneficial,’” Austin Javellana, a senior landscape architecture major, told the Iowa State Daily.

The project is ongoing and future crews of ISU students will work on completing the master plan.

The Department of Corrections is hopeful the project will become “a national model for bringing humane and therapeutic landscapes into a very restrictive environment.”

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