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Can a building help end mass incarceration?

With Restore Oakland—the country’s first restorative justice and restorative economics center—architect Deanna Van Buren wagers we’ve got a fighting chance

A building painted magenta and teal located on a street corner with a group of men and women standing in front of it, engaged in conversation.
Restore Oakland is a 20,000 SF space extending over three floors of a reclaimed building at the corner of 34th Avenue and International Boulevard in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.
Photos by Emily Hagopian

America’s criminal justice system is broken. Today, there are over 2.5 million people in jail and prison—a 400 percent increase since 1970. Mass incarceration is a deeply politicized issue, and fixing it will involve conversations about policing, bail and sentencing reform, private for-profit prisons, poverty, racism, and economic inequality.

In Oakland, a pioneering building called Restore Oakland, completed in 2019, approaches a solution to mass incarceration by providing space for progressive philosophies of restorative justice and restorative economics. Restore Oakland is jointly owned by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a restorative justice non-profit, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization working toward better wages and conditions in the restaurant industry. It also provides space for Causa Justa/Just Cause, a tenant advocacy and housing rights organization; La Cocina, an incubator for low-income food entrepreneurs; the nonprofit Restorative Justice for Oakland, which works with schools; and Community Works West, an organization that works in San Francisco and Alameda counties with at-risk youth, individuals who are incarcerated, those who are transitioning out of incarceration, and the families of incarcerated and court-involved individuals.

Restore Oakland is new model for achieving justice that has the potential to be replicated across the country. The project is also an illustration of how design can contribute to, and even facilitate, decarceration.

“This is what we build instead of prisons,” says Deanna Van Buren, the architect and developer of Restore Oakland. “What Restore Oakland represents is programs, place, and people coming together to build infrastructure that’s equitable.”

An office with yellow walls, exposed wood beams, large windows, and skylights
Because of the difficult work involved in restorative justice, Restore Oakland’s design is welcoming, comforting, and soothing. “The nervous system [response to conflict] is fight, flight, or freeze and the design is mitigating that,” architect Deanna Van Buren says.

Lawyers, advocates, and academics have been addressing mass incarceration in America for decades, but architects and designers only recently started to explore and interrogate their role, often from a spatial perspective. They’re questioning the ethics of designing jails and prisons, asking what more “humane” jails and prisons might look like and if “humane” jails and prisons are even possible.

But Van Buren, and her nonprofit architecture and real estate development firm Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, engage with the problem in what’s perhaps a more productive way for the building industry: by imagining alternative systems.

Two women stand in front of a black wall with text drawn on in chalk
Architectural Associate Shelley Davis (left) and Co-Founder and Design Director Deanna Van Buren of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces stand in the peacemaking room, which helps people in mediation express their feelings.

“There was something wrong to me about making better and prettier boxes for black and brown people,” Van Buren explained during a recent talk at the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Black in Design conference. “So what do we build instead? You can design a building. But if you design a system, you can design scale.”

Instead of focusing on improving the conditions of jails, prisons, and courthouses, Van Buren and her team approach mass incarceration by addressing its root causes: poverty, racism, unequal access to resources, and the nature of the criminal justice system. They create spaces and buildings for restorative justice, rehabilitation, and community building through projects like a pop-up “resource village” to bring services directly to communities in need; a peacemaking center in Syracuse, New York; mobile classrooms and women’s refuge centers; and modular re-entry housing.

“If the goal is to end mass incarceration—which the goal has to be—architects and designers need to put the majority of their work into the infrastructure needed to end the system. And that’s not prettier boxes of incarceration,” Van Buren says. “If you have 100 architects, one should look at the prettier prison. The rest should focus on housing, health care, restorative justice, education, workforce development. It’s endless the amount of spaces that need to be built to end the system, and we need to focus on structural and systemic change.”

A group of people sit in blue chairs around a wood coffee table in a room with large windows, a blue rug, and blue walls.
A successful peacemaking space has to toe the line between a number of attributes: people need to feel like they have privacy but that they’re not trapped. A blue room divider offers space of refuge from the larger conversation area.

Restorative justice is a philosophy that emphasizes resolving conflicts and wrongdoing—which could be any number of things, including theft, assault, domestic violence, and murder—through accountability and repairing the relationship between the person who harmed, as well as the people and communities who were harmed.

No one is labeled a victim or offender here. Rather, the process involves bringing each party together to talk through what happened, why it happened, and how it made everyone feel. The eventual goal is to make amends. The successful practice has a long history in indigenous communities, and is quietly becoming an alternative to incarceration in more progressive court jurisdictions.

Recognizing that the cycles of incarceration and poverty remain closely linked, Restore Oakland shows what a system designed to heal communities hit hardest by these issues looks like: peacemaking and conflict resolution for court-involved individuals, which reduces recidivism and builds community; job training to develop skills in an industry that pays living wages and will hire formerly incarcerated people; and job placement to gain experience. It’s a system that nurtures healing, education, accountability, self-determination, and economic independence rather than punishment. It lifts people up instead of breaking them down.

Three people stand in long hallway with red and magenta walls, concrete floors, and multiple gray armchairs. A man is opening a a glass door framed in wood.
The downstairs “den” of Restore Oakland features community meeting space and nods to the long history of basements being a place where activists gather to facilitate change.

Restore Oakland is located near the BART station in Fruitvale, in a rapidly gentrifying zip code in which 27 percent of residents live below the poverty line and 42 percent are immigrants. The area also has some of the highest concentrations of parolees and people on probation in Alameda County.

With vibrant yellow walls, exposed 100-year-old wood beams, and sunlight streaming in through skylights, Restore Oakland is a warm and welcoming building—the opposite of the psychogeography of the spaces of incarceration. Jails, prisons, and courts are designed so that the people in the spaces feel constantly on edge, continually surveilled, and without privacy. Each element of Restore Oakland is tailored to foster feelings of empathy, security, privacy, and openness required during the peacemaking process of restorative justice.

Through a partnership with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, Community Works West works with youth, mostly between the ages of 18 and 21, who are diverted out of the court system and into their restorative justice and peacemaking programs. Causa Justa, a tenants’ rights and housing advocacy organization, holds clinics at the Restore Oakland to help its clients secure housing. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United operates a commercial teaching kitchen that trains individuals in culinary arts and in front-of-house fine dining service positions, and offers community cooking classes; Colors, a restaurant that pays a living wage, hires formerly incarcerated people and those who’ve matriculated through the teaching program; and a small business incubator.

“Restore Oakland symbolizes intersectionality in space and the power that has,” Van Buren says. “Restorative justice, economic justice, food justice, environmental justice—they are all interrelated and Restore Oakland presents a place-based approach to supporting the idea that this is how we solve problems. By looking at all these things at once. This is how we move forward.”

Correction: A previous version of the story misstated Community Works West’s work; they work with individuals before, during, and after incarceration, not just afterward as was previously stated. The Alameda County District Attorney partners with Community Works West, not Restorative Justice for Oakland.