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Plans are Useless but Planning is Essential

Both of these statements are paraphrases from two famous men who dramatically altered the outcome of World War II: Eisenhower and Churchill.  While both statements were made in the context of military actions, their relevance in the global evolution of prison systems is apropos. In nations that practice the rule of law, one could say that as laws are enacted which require a sanction of imprisonment, so too does the need, or not, for prisons. Hence, the need to consider the value of planning for transformative environments is pertinent.

First, consider the need for strategic planning. One of the basic laws of physics is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As nations criminalize societal actions through the enactment of laws and policies, most often a sanction results that encourages or requires incarceration. Too often these legislated actions are imposed without an appreciation of the implications for the criminal justice system; especially the prison system. Yet, even the most basic planning before implementation can predict the implications for new capital assets and human resources.

History has shown us that “front end” planning will at a minimum define quantifiable alternatives to meeting the legislated mandates. In my country, the USA, the recent “realignment” legislation in California is a good example of not taking the planning process far enough to grasp the full impact of this prison population reduction initiative. Indeed, the legislation did contribute to a reduction of 40,000 inmates in the State-operated prison system, but did not completely address the implications this action would (and did) have upon the locally operated county jails.

Without being critical, this one of countless examples reinforces the truth in the statement that plans most often have a short “shelf life”. However, the process of continually updating plans is crucial to understanding that political, social, financial, and human implications will change with the convergence of other influences and actions. Often, those best equipped to “model” and monitor the impact of plans are not those responsible for the implementation, but those who understand “the universe (and connectedness) of all things”.

Steven Carter

Second, consider that actions requiring or encouraging a built response carry a responsibility for the transformation of behavior during the time of incapacitation. The burden is upon the planner to quantify the need informed by evidence, followed by the designer’s role to interpret the evidence in spatial terms. I believe that some of the best examples of “form following evidence” can be found in the Halden Prison in Norway – multi-custody men’s prison; the FPC in Ghent, Belgium – mentally impaired treatment center; and the Shakopee Prison in Minnesota, USA – multi-custody women’s prison.

Planners and designers obviously shape the spaces and environments that we inhabit and evidence abounds that these environments have measurable impacts on our subsequent behavior, attitude, and outlook. No more obvious environment than prisons reinforces the importance of investing in professionals that not only acknowledge this, but create transformative environments by practising thought leadership.

The ICPA aims to be a center for collecting examples that demonstrate the need for iterative planning and evidence-informed design. At the last ICPA Conference in Melbourne, an international group of planners and designers met to discuss the need for a “knowledge community” that would collect and disseminate examples of exemplary practice that could benefit governments, researchers, and practitioners that have the responsibility to plan, design, and operate prison systems.

In coming weeks and months, more information will be forthcoming on the ICPA website on how our membership can access the examples.


Author: Stephen Carter, AICP, Chairman ICPA Planning and Design Group