Iowa State students design, build children’s garden at Iowa women’s prison

Children's garden rendering

The students developed renderings for what the final children's garden will look like. Rendering provided by Julie Stevens. Larger image.

MITCHELLVILLE, Iowa – Building a children’s garden at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women was the plan from day one.

Seven years later, it’s finally coming to life.

Julie Stevens, assistant professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, headed back to ICIW this spring with her students. Since 2011, her studio class has completed several projects at the women’s prison in Mitchellville, including outdoor classrooms, an aspen grove, a decompression area for prison staff, a healing garden for incarcerated women with special needs and a vegetable garden.

This spring the class took on the outdoor visiting area, a small, fenced-in concrete space with a few tables. It wasn’t conducive to positive visits for children and their mothers. The team’s goal was to create an area that helps minimize the negative impacts a parent’s incarceration can have on children. Construction will finish in June.

“This is the project I’ve wanted to do since the beginning of our partnership with ICIW,” Stevens said. “The bond between a mother and her child is critical for the child’s emotional and cognitive development.”

Research suggests that children with incarcerated parents are significantly more likely to enter a life of crime and incarceration. Maintaining and fostering parent-child relationships is one of the most effective ways to stop the intergenerational cycle of incarceration, Stevens says. Research also suggests that women who maintain or build healthy relationships with their families during a period of incarceration are far less likely to return to prison.

Security is a top priority in the outdoor visiting area due to interaction between incarcerated women and their guests. Expansion plans needed to ensure prison staff could see everything at all times.

Stevens and her students took those concerns very seriously when they began brainstorming designs for a children’s garden – a task they brought to the prison so incarcerated women and their families could provide input.

“We came here multiple times, first doing collages with the women so we could get an idea of what they needed,” said Saranya Panchaseelan, a third-year graduate student in architecture from Bangalore, India. “We built models and came to the prison on visiting day so the kids could help us plan the garden. It’s nice to hear from them because we’re not here all the time.”

Promoting healthy relationships

On visiting days, the indoor play area and the outdoor visiting space become overcrowded. The new children’s garden offers not only more capacity, but experiential play and positive distractions from the surrounding prison.

ICIW design build

Iowa State University students worked alongside
incarcerated women at the Iowa Correctional Institution
for Women on the design and construction of the
children's garden. Photo by Joseph Kastner. Larger

Once construction is finished, the garden will be approximately one-third of an acre, opening out from the current outdoor visiting area to a fenced expanse that includes paved walkways and gardens.

“We wanted to create a design that was truly informed by the women’s needs and desires for the space,” said Alyssa Mullen, fourth-year student in architecture from Marion. “One of our biggest realizations was that the women really missed everyday activities with their growing children. Because of this, we incorporated elements within our design that had a ‘backyard feel,’ from a porch swing to a small walking trail to fun play equipment.

“Our hope is that the garden is not only a happy space for children, but a therapeutic environment where families feel comfortable enough to have tough conversations, if that’s something that needs to happen.”

“Engaging in gardening, play and music will strengthen relationships and provide a starting point for mothers to have important conversations with their children and their children’s caregivers, who have an incredibly important role in the child’s life,” Stevens said. 

Word has gotten around about Stevens’ work at the prison. 100+ Women Who Care Des Moines and 100 Men on a Mission donated funds for play equipment. Percussion Play donated an outdoor musical instrument, and many community members have donated to the team’s Fund ISU campaign, which is still open.

“The thing a lot of people don’t realize is almost all the women in here will return to society. They’ll be your neighbors. They’re moms and daughters,” said Sgt. Corey Gould, who manages the prison’s garden crew. “Anything we can do to promote healthy relationships with their kids, we want to do. This is just another way to help them maintain that bond with their children and spouses.”

ICIW Warden Sheryl Dahm says the children’s garden will provide a safe respite for children to bond with their mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Many children are driven to the prison from hours away.

“Kids will be able to run outside after being in a car and it will allow moms and grandmas to have conversations out where there’s fresh air,” Dahm said. “It’s much better than sitting around in a closed environment.”

“For a brief period of time, those kids can have mom time.”

Tyler Wurr

Tyler Wurr, fifth-year student in architecture, works on construction of the new children's garden at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville. Photo by Joseph Kastner. Larger image.