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EMMA CHAI speaks with Professor Palla on reimagining prison 

Your goal as the Assistant Professor at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, Pakistan, is to expand the role of design to impact society. How are you achieving this goal?

It has been extremely important for me to select design projects that provide students with the ability to understand the diversity of their context and the inefficiencies and inequalities in our system, as well as to help these future architects understand that design plays a much larger role and cannot work in isolation.

The projects selected have provided students a platform to study the intersection of design and policy, while proposing contextual and bold solutions unique to Karachi. Specifically, students spent a semester working on “Reimagining Prisons.” Students visited local prisons, understood the issues and challenges inmates face, and studied how prisons are being redefined in other parts of the world. This project proved to be extremely challenging for the students because it forced them to question their own ideologies on the justice system.

Where did the inspiration come from to assign your students to work on prison reform?

My own thesis project focused on redesigning the Women’s Prison in Karachi, Pakistan, redefining it as a rehabilitation facility, allowing the women a chance to rebuild their lives upon leaving prison. Recently, I learned that Frank Gehry has taught a course on Reimagining Prisons at USC. This, combined with my own passion for prison reform, and the realization that most citizens are completely unaware of how prisons function and their inequalities, led to this project.

Prison Project: A student's drawing

This project was your attempt to push the envelope to implement alternatives to incarceration. What bold ideas, programs, and designs did the students propose?

It was a challenge at first to even convince the students to push the envelope. It took students a long time to figure out for themselves how they felt about prisons and prison reform, as well as what “punishment” was to them. One project wanted to break down the psychological and physical barriers of a security wall. The goal was to blend into the urban context, creating as much as breathability as possible, while maintaining security standards.

Another student questioned the day to day system for male inmates, and explained that inmates should be treated as citizens rather than outcasts, providing them with a 9 to 5 job, self-sufficiency, and an income so that they don’t fall into the same patterns upon leaving. Each cell was examined to detail, and proposed a buddy system versus the current system of 50 inmates to a barrack.

Another exciting project was embedding the design with natural farming all around—the inmates would learn farming skills, grow and cultivate their own crops and food, and use this skill upon leaving prison. This concept also reflected in the form and through the openness and stepped farming terraces.

Here she is wearing EMMA CHAI's ultra stretch-knit skirt with ruffles. 

"A prison should be a temporary exclusion that aims for inclusion."

Prison Project: Prison design

This is not the first time you worked on prison reform—your undergraduate architecture thesis project focused on the redesign of the Women's Prison in Karachi, Pakistan. Correct? Tell us more.

Yes! I mentioned this before, and this is what really led to my passion on prison reform. My professor labeled me as a “social reform architect” and was the one who suggested to consider prisons as my thesis. When I visited the Women’s Central Jail, I learned that most of these women had no education, came from incredibly low-income backgrounds, had either run away from home or their abusive husbands, and had nowhere to go once they left prison.

Additionally, children up to the ages of five could live with their mothers. While this may seem sensitive and conscious, the living conditions did not benefit children. My proposal designed the Women’s Prison as a “Women’s Rehabilitation Facility,” which provided training programs and workshops for women, as well as a school for the children.

Your philosophy is that design does not work well in isolation. Did you develop this idea while you were an architect at a design firm?

When I graduated as an architect, I was incredibly naïve and had limited understanding. It was when I went to NYU and studied urban planning that I learned how design can intersect with so many fields. When I graduated from NYU, I worked on commercial corridor redevelopment for lower income areas of New York City. This position was a perfect role for me because it allowed me to use both skill sets: design and planning.

Then you decided to combine your background in architecture with a Master’s in Urban Planning from NYU. For those of us who are unfamiliar with urban planning, what is it and how is it different from design?  

I think urban planning teaches you to consider all perspectives and fields. My program had individuals from all disciplines, and it was wonderful how we all came together to discuss and design projects. I learned how different viewpoints from diverse fields are so crucial to the development of projects. I think urban planning can take several meanings, but personally I believe it is the study of community development and cities.

I also think it is the study of people and their patterns. I think the meaning of design may have been different and worked in isolation earlier on, but it is hard for me to consider them different. I think design and planning work hand in hand and one cannot work without the other. I do not believe that design is a final product or object – I believe it is a process.

"prisons in the United States need to reimagine the actual designs of the buildings"

Here she wears EMMA CHAI's Gaia black and white striped lightweight pullover.

Why do you believe the intersection of design and policy is critical?

I think policies must be revisited constantly, and design provides a unique and creative perspective. It also provides policy makers with refreshing approaches. Additionally, design is meant to be built on the patterns and behavior of individuals, and I believe policies should be designed the same way. Design allows policies to be designed around the needs of citizens.

While you were in NYC, you worked on a program called the Storefront Improvement Program. The program assisted over 100 businesses impacted by Hurricane Sandy. What elements of this program did you teach your students to apply to the prison reform project in Karachi?

The Storefront Improvement Program focused on reaching out to lower income communities, and minority owned small businesses. Before designing anything, the main job was to make these individuals feel comfortable, and build trust. I believe the same goes for any project, and this was especially the case in the prison reform project in Karachi.

What I also realized with the Storefront Program is that each program must be altered according to the client (in this case, the business owners). Some did not speak English, have access to a computer, and had lost all their paperwork. In these instances, my team had to think creatively and provide more one on one interaction to help these business owners receive the assistance they deserved. 

The prison reform project really required students to learn how to be flexible, deal with differing personalities and opinions, and really try to come up with solutions outside of the box.


How can we re-envision the idea of prison in the United States?  

Prisons in Karachi are all over capacity, with a larger likelihood of inmates leaving prison and coming back. This is due to their deteriorating mental condition while in prison, rather than strengthening them physically and mentally to make sure they do not return.

I believe this is also the case with many prisons in the United States. I think prisons in the United States need to reimagine the actual designs of the buildings (ample amount of sunlight, cell/room layouts, common spaces, etc.).

Additionally, I think the goals of prisons should be reimagined. What are we really trying to achieve? Should they be empowering versus disabling? Are we not responsible for the development of these citizens rather than neglecting them? I think as designers, planners, and ultimately citizens, these are the questions that we have to ask and are responsible for.


Picture 1: Here she wears EMMA CHAI's oversized sweater vest in gray. 

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