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ISU Student Landscape Architecture Project At Women's Prison Gets National Award

Julie Stevens
Outdoor classrooms at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women.

A student landscape architecture project at Iowa State University is being recognized by a national organization for working to make the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women a more humane and therapeutic environment.

The American Society of Landscape Architects has given the ISU project a Community Service Award of Excellence for creating outdoor classrooms using native Iowa limestone and prairie plants, and a decompression deck for staff at the women’s prison in Mitchellville.

Credit Alison Weidemann
Vegetable garden at the ICIW.

"There is research that suggests that being in a good healthy outdoor environment has the ability to restore your ability to focus," says assistant professor Julie Stevens, who leads the program. "A lot of these women are in intensive treatment programs. And for them to be inside a walled room with almost no naturally lighting for hours and hours, all day long, with no other stimulation, it's really difficult for them to maintain focus. So the ability to be in the outdoor environment, restore that sense of focus and attention, reduce stress, all those things contribute to them being able to make the changes we're hoping that they'll make while they're in prison and that they won't return."

In addition to the classrooms and decompression area, the program has also created healing and vegetable gardens, where students and inmates planted beans, tomatoes, and potatoes. 

Stevens hopes to implement a mother-child gardening program, for inmates who are parents. The program is also creating surveys for the inmates, staff and correctional officers to measure the impact of the outdoor space. 

"Our partnership with ISU  has far exceeded any expectation I envisioned," says ICIW Warden Patti Wachtendorf in an emailed statement. "We’ve seen an improvement in the women’s attitudes while enjoying the outdoor areas.  Staff also appreciate the area the students built for them to 'decompress' from a stressful work environment."*

It's not just people who live and work at the Mitchellville prison who are benefiting. Stevens says her students have grown both professionally and personally through their work at the correctional facility. 

"They're talking and working side-by-side with people who have grown up very different from how they have. They haven't had the same privileges." says Stevens. "They realize that they're just people like everybody else and they've made some bad decisions. But that doesn't mean they don't deserve a healthier environment or an opportunity to improve their own environment." 

The ISU student project is one of 23 honored by the ASLA. Winning entries will be featured in the October issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine. 

*This post has been updated with Warden Patti Wachtendorf's quote. (10/02/2015)