Radically Reimagining Atlanta’s City Jail

While celebrating Juneteenth in this time of unprecedented protest against police brutality, it is important to recognize that despite the end of slavery “in theory,” the oppression of black communities continued and transformed into new laws and policies forming a new system of enslavement through mass incarceration, as so eloquently outlined in author Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which ignited a national debate a decade ago. In her current New York Times article, Alexander recounts the opportunities in this moment, to break these historic trends of systematizing oppression and hiding it under the letter of the law. At DJDS, we build on Alexander’s work and find that the current lack of imagination to envision a different justice system, one that treats all people equally, is holding us all back from becoming a liberated society.

While the wave of hasty decarceration due to COVID-19 is revealing to us the unnecessary imprisonment of our communities, by and large the system remains intact. But there is a bright light in Atlanta: after more than six years of organizing led by formerly incarcerated activist Marylynn Winn of Women on the Rise (WOR) and Xochitl Brevera of the Racial Justice Action Center (RJAC), the City of Atlanta committed to close the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC). In 2019, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed legislation to form a task force — the Task Force to Reimagine the Atlanta City Detention Center — composed of representatives from local government and community members, to provide recommendations to transform ACDC into a Center for Equity. This followed Mayor Bottoms’ administration’s adoption of new policies and programs to decriminalize low-level offenses, expand a pre-arrest diversion initiative, eliminate municipal cash bail, and end a long-term contract with ICE, all of which led to a continued decline in the jail’s daily population; by 2019, the population of the 471,00-square-foot facility, which was built to house 1,370, was under 100 people.

The Atlanta City Detention Center as it stands today in the city

Given the scale of the endeavor and the call from the Mayor to engage the entire city, this project seemed daunting at first. However, we instantly and humbly knew that we did not have all of the answers, but we do have expertise in devising strategies to design with the people who do have answers — in this case, those who have been directly impacted by the jail. After being invited by the community organizers to join the effort, and then joining the planning team to support and be held accountable by the Mayor’s Task Force, we dove into a process of designing the community engagement strategy and then the trauma informed tools needed not only to collect information and ideas, but also to gain the trust of the community. After a period of strategizing, modifying existing tools (such as our Peace and Justice Cards and Start, Stop, Continue game), and creating a few new tools designed specifically for this project, we arrived in Atlanta for the first task force meeting to kick off the Reimagining ACDC project.

Public Engagement Event (Space Planning & Finance Game), Task Force Meeting #1 (Start, Stop, Continue Game)
Trans and Queer Engagement Event (A Seat at the Table Model), Mayor’s Cabinet Engagement (Space Planning & Finance Game)

The initial city-wide meeting, attended by hundreds of attendees and the full Task Force, was a very tense gathering. The community, exhausted from years of fighting and broken promises, was at odds with a police chief and corrections staff who were rightfully fearful of losing jobs and career pathways, which for some are generational careers that tend to be one of the most secure and well-paying jobs that those individuals have available to them to support their families. Through our facilitation and meeting design, we were able to focus attention on the object of the facility in order for deeper conversation to transpire in a productive way. That first Task Force meeting ended up being a huge success, and it set the tone for what would be a precedent-setting 12-month collaborative reimagining and engagement process to transform a major and symbolic piece of city infrastructure. Our practice of engaging the community as the “experts” for what they need is designed to demonstrate and prove that we value their input and lived experiences. This approach helped cut through the tension, and it made way for difficult conversations and deep listening to take place.

Communities are often alienated during the design process, barraged by complicated architectural and finance jargon as well as well-meaning but offensive references to their lived experience. By eliminating jargon and designing our tools as educational invitations, DJDS is able to break down these exclusive systems and languages. The Space Planning and Finance game, for example, empowered the community with tools to begin thinking creatively about the potential uses for the Center for Equity while also giving them a basic understanding how the spaces in a building are planned out, the scale and typical uses of each type of space, and ultimately how a project of this kind would be paid for. We also trained the local organizers to use these tools and jump in to support along the way, since they were the local experts in the process. Overall we were able to engage nearly 600 residents in Reimagining ACDC by using these key tools.

When closing and repurposing jails as designers, we need to address the entire justice core, which includes courts, bail bonds, and legal offices, as well as a lack of the housing, daily needs, and cultural activities that make for vibrant communities. South downtown Atlanta was no different, so our process included thinking beyond the detention center itself to the half-block radius around it. We did this in collaboration with Atlanta City Studio, housed within the Department of City Planning, along with open conversations with Atlanta Downtown, which was responsible for creating the 2017 Downtown Atlanta Master Plan.

Master Planning Workshop, Urban Plan (Mithun — Pro-Bono Consultants)

After completing the bulk of the engagement, we immersed ourselves in a rigorous process of analyzing the information that had been collected. A strategy anchored in inspiring design and programming guidelines established the foundation of the four development strategies that DJDS proposed in our feasibility report, which was issued at the end of May. The resulting designs are a direct reflection of our ability to create restorative spaces and galvanize disparate organizations and ideas around a common goal of healing and transformation. As our design team focused on analyzing the engagement outputs, our real estate team conducted market analysis and financial research to create a finance scheme to accompany each recommendation, grounding them in economic terms. The collaboration of the design, real estate, and engagement teams all contributed to the Feasibility Report that then allows our partners to begin pre-development fundraising. You can see the City’s report, with the various working group’s recommendations here, and you can see the full details of our four proposed concepts here.

The Proposed Designs

Downtown Anchor Building Design, with Equity Podium view: Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

Two repurposing strategies transform the existing building significantly by removing the precast concrete exterior facade panels to let in natural light. The Equity Podium strategy focuses the Center for Equity, emphasized with bold colors, on the lower 2 floors, and the basement, while the Downtown Anchor strategy would host the Center for Equity throughout the entire building, hence the unapologetic bold color throughout. The building exterior is enhanced by new canopy structures and warm timber cladding, signifying the new welcoming nature of the building’s uses. An art installation of colorful commemorative butterflies -each representing those impacted by the former building purpose — sweeps across the building ushering in powerful change.

Building Design: Designing Justice + Designing Spaces/ Landscape Design: Mithun

The interiors for the repurposing strategies incorporate biophilic approaches, drawing on design elements from nature to support healing and creating a synergistic experience between the building and the body. Reflecting the community’s input, a welcoming and trauma-informed Super Lobby offers an information center along with a range of daily needs, including retail, community spaces, and services for those impacted. Hanging plants, honeycomb patterns, warm wood finishes, are present, and a new tree structure that extends from the basement to the second floor signifies a new seed and cultivated purpose for the building.

Super Lobby — Building Design: Designing Justice + Designing Spaces
Upper Floor Design: Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

On the upper floors, a portion of the existing mezzanine floor plate is cut away to bring natural light further back into the building. This results in a double-height space to accommodate a bright and lively shared community space that anchors a hospitality program available on each floor.

New Construction Center for Equity Campus Scheme: Designing Justice + Designing Spaces
Landscape Design: Mithun

The Center for Equity Campus option is a potential catalytic development for South Downtown Atlanta composed of three new buildings surrounding a circular memorial plaza. This strategy allows for phased construction of the buildings and incorporation of the most current state of the art and sustainable building systems. New landscaping and more appropriately scaled buildings incorporate new housing — essential for bringing people and residential activity to the area — with easy access to public transportation. A timber structure, clad with window wall systems, also compliments warm brick and timber cladding and enhances colorful metal panels on the vertical circulation towers.

Landscape Design: Mithun

The Distributed Equity strategy involves a complete demolition of the existing building and transforms the site into a commemorative park with a story wall, an outdoor theater, water features, and a sustainable cistern adapting to the natural slope of the site to capture and re-use storm water for irrigation. A Paw Paw tree grove commemorates American history as the fruit of this tree, native to the South, served as sustenance for the enslaved people escaping along the Underground Railroad.

Landscape Design: Mithun

On May 29th DJDS submitted these four development concepts to the City of Atlanta. All four schemes committed to ending incarceration at the facility, with two calling for the demolition of the building. Again, you can see the full report and outcomes here. While the current situation in Atlanta is complicated and changes by the week, this process is a prototype for unbilding racism and ending mass incarceration and is the first city wide process and re-imagining of its kind.

We are an Oakland-based architecture and real estate development nonprofit working to end mass incarceration.