Richard Wener: Can Detention Be Humane and Sustainable?


Keynote by Richard Wener, New York University, USA, at the International Conference of Environmental Psychology ICEP-2017, A Coruña, 30, 31 August, 1st September 2017. 

Richard Wener, PhD, is Professor of Environmental Psychology, and head of the Sustainable Urban Environments program at the Tandon School of Engineering of New York University. He is a fellow and past president of Division 34 of the American Psychological Association, and received the Career and Distinguished Service Awards from the Environmental Design Research Association and the Distinguished Scholar Research Award from the International Corrections and Prisons Association.

Can Detention Be Humane and Sustainable?

Perhaps the most profound act a state can take – one that can be both legal and common – is to take away a person’s freedom, yet many millions remain locked up every day. Only in prisons are people kept for long periods of time in conditions that so significantly violate basic notions of our rights and who we are.

We lose control over uses of space as basic as determining where and with whom we sleep, when we can rise, eat, bathe, read, work and recreate. Notions of privacy we learn from childhood are largely eliminated, including our ability to enter or leave a social situation, to dress, clean or toilet out of sight of others. Moreover, the above describes normal conditions (“general population”) and does not touch on more extreme situations, such as solitary confinement.

One hopes that legal jurisdictions commit people to such conditions only when other options fail, and with the most careful thought and consideration, but we know this is not the case many places and many times.

Prisons can also have a profound impact on the sustainability of communities. They can change the definition and image of a town as place names get forever associated with the local penitentiary. They may use inordinate amounts of precious and scarce resources, such as potable water, and sometimes, in exchange, return sewage and other sources of pollution.

This talk will use evidence-based understanding and value-based principles to discuss how prisons can be designed and run to meet international standards of humane treatment, be safe and secure, allow for possibilities for offering services that can lead to positive outcomes, and do so while maintaining sustainable models of design and operation.

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