Prison Design: secure and humane

We look at prison design around the world and how architects must balance the need for both security and humanity

As a field of expertise, prison design is not glamorous. It will never make you a household name and your creative thought will forever be stifled by inflexible security rules and budget constraints. It can also be controversial – a group of architects in the USA, ADPSR (Architects/ Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility), even petitioned the American Institute of Architects to amend its code of ethics to prevent members from working on prison projects because of fears over human rights.

The concerns reflect the fact that American prison design is perhaps the most extreme example of architecture as punishment. The USA incarcerates more people per 100,000 of population that any country in the world – 655 per 100,000 compared with 172 in Australia, 139 in England and Wales, 63 in Norway and 51 in Finland. Around 25,000 of those are held in supermax prisons where, according to ADPSR’s petition, ‘solitary confinement is an intolerable form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’.

East Jutland State Prison was the first new prison in Denmark for more than 30 years and replaced a 150-year-old facility with something far less institutional. Credit: Friis and Moltke Architects

Despite the deleterious effects of solitary confinement on mental health having been documented for well over a century, prisoners in supermax spent 23 hours a day in small, bare, permanently illuminated concrete cells, given food through a slot in the door. For their one hour of exercise, they walk around in an equally tiny cage, walled on four sides and with a mesh cutting them off from the sky. ‘The supermax is the most inhumane and barbaric idea,’ says criminologist and prison architecture specialist Professor Yvonne Jewkes. ‘This approach has no hope of rehabilitating anybody. If we lock people up in cages they respond to these behavioural cues by behaving like animals.’ While she understands the reluctance of the American architects, Jewkes believes the involvement of the profession has the potential to be a force for good: ‘Architects may be very limited in what they can do to be rehabilitative, but by instilling concepts in the design, such as trust and respect and dignity, they can help people on their journey and invest in their futures.’

East Jutland State Prison was designed like a village, with everything in separate buildings so that inmates get to walk in the fresh air every day. Credit: Friis and Moltke Architects

Jewkes has been working with the Irish Prison Service to write the design brief for a new prison in Limerick. ‘The question that got them reeling – and then thinking – was “if a relative of yours experienced a period of custody here, would they not only be safe and treated decently, but be able to thrive and flourish?” Architects tend to think empathically about care homes as they can imagine themselves getting old, but they never think about themselves or a relative ending up in prison. Empathy is really, really important.’ Jewkes would like prison architects to take some of their cues from Maggie’s Centres, which use trauma-informed design to avoid some of the factors she feels are common to institutional life, in hospitals and prisons – ‘lack of natural daylight, long corridors with sharp bends where you can’t see what’s coming, and harsh artificial materials’.

At Halden, different functions are in different buildings, so prisoners walk between their ‘home’ in the cell block and work, education and leisure facilities, hinting towards a normal life. Credit: Erik Arkitekter

Scandinavia is known for its enlightened attitudes toward offenders, so it’s often here that architects look for inspiration – Frank Gehry recently went on a prison tour of Scandinavia while making a film intended to encourage some designed humanity into the American system. Examples of good practice are many, with the best known being the exemplary Halden Prison in Norway, designed by practice ERIK Arkitekter. The project was a new field for architect Steen Gissel. ‘This was my first time incarcerating people – if kindergartens don’t count,’ he laughs, then admits more seriously: ‘We did everything we could to make it just like working on any other project, but obviously it’s different. The safety concerns in prison design will introduce you to corners of the human psyche that you would rather not know about.’

Storstrøm, a maximum security prison intended to be the most humane in the world, was designed to resemble an urban community as that is most familiar to the inmates. Criminologist Yvonne Jewkes stresses the importance of places for retreat and quiet reflection in a prison environment. There is space for faith and contemplation at Storstrøm. Credit: Torben Eskerod

The idea behind Halden was to create a facsimile of life on the outside. ‘The complex is divided into a number of buildings with different functions,’ Gissel explains. ‘In many prisons the different functions are all in one building, which makes things easier logistically but as a consequence the inmates spend 20 years inside the same building, which drives people crazy. The day in the life of a Halden inmate is in many ways like normal, everyday life. You get up in the morning and go to work or to school. In the evening you go home. This design gives the inmates a sense of home, because there are no other functions in the housing units. It’s just home. In designs with all the functions in one building, the inmates have no or little sense of home, so they end up being frustrated, bored and understimulated.’

At Holmsheidi Prison, Reykjavik, the cleverly designed extrusions to each cell allow a view that isn’t overlooked. Credit: Hreinn Magnusson

A similar thought process lay behind the designs for new prisons in East Jutland, Denmark, and Nuuk in Greenland, both by Danish architecture practice Friis & Moltke. Thomas Ruus Christensen, partner and head of design at the firm, explains: ‘Both projects are based on the same values: creating a meaningful and dignified framework for the inmates’ stay, which takes into account safety and the inmates’ ability to leave the institution with better odds in life.’ At the East Jutland prison, says Christensen, ‘Clusters of small buildings create a village that sets the framework for a mini-community that mimics everyday life outside the wall. The different areas are placed a distance apart, so the inmates have to walk between their home, work, school, shopping, healthcare and sports facilities – just as in normal life. Inmates can move more freely and on their own between the different sections, and these daily strolls are characterised by lots of daylight and views of nature.’ In the Nuuk facility there is a similar separation of function, although the extreme weather means that internal links will be used.

This small-scale prison in Reykjavik holds women, short-sentence prisoners and those in temporary custody. The cells are spacious and calming, with plenty of natural light. Credit: Hreinn Magnusson

In contrast, Storstrøm Prison, a maximum security facility on Falster island in Denmark, was designed by architect C F Møller to recreate an urban environment familiar to prisoners, with the cells being the focus of the architectural imagination. Partner Mads Mandrup Hansen explains: ‘By adding as much humanity as we can into our design approach, penal architecture can essentially go from being cruel and institutional to becoming a place of positive stimulation, despite its confining constraints. If you balance things right, trying to add as much normality and healing aspects into your design as possible, I truly believe it can make a difference. If you believe in rehabilitation, the journey of change starts with the way you design the cells.’ At Storstrøm, there are floor-toceiling windows with no bars, plus a smaller window on the other side for two different views.

Hunter Correctional Centre, part of Australia’s rapid-build prison programme, has done away with cells altogether, placing prisoners in office-style cubicles with no doors. Counterintuitively, thefts, assaults and aggression has decreased dramatically, perhaps because inmates are kept busy most of the time with work or education. Credit: Hreinn Magnusson

The cells at Holmsheidi prison in Reykjavik, Iceland, designed by ARKÍS, look lighter and more spacious than the average student room in a hall of residence, with each cell having an extrusion that allows daylight and views without overlooking any other cell. Björn Guðbrandsson, architect and partner at ARKÍS, explains: ‘The well-being of those who inhabit our designs is always paramount to us. We were very focused on creating an environment that is comfortable and safe both for prisoners and staff while maintaining security measures and controlling cost. With a building of this nature the balancing act between security, cost and well-being can be difficult, but as architects we welcomed the challenge and focused on getting the most out of restricted means. A simple example is the cell window – its shape, placement and orientation allows daylight to enter beautifully into the small cell while allowing for nice views out to the surroundings.’

Hunter Correctional Centre, part of Australia’s rapid-build prison programme, has done away with cells altogether, placing prisoners in office-style cubicles with no doors. Counterintuitively, thefts, assaults and aggression has decreased dramatically, perhaps because inmates are kept busy most of the time with work or education. Credit: Hreinn Magnusson

By way of contrast, the new generation of ‘rapid-build’ prisons being put up in New South Wales, Australia, have more or less dispensed with cells altogether, replacing them with call centre-style cubicles in open-plan 25-bed dormitories. The cubicles, which have a bed, desk and TV, have half-height partitions and no doors. Each dormitory has private bathrooms with toilet and shower for one inmate at a time. Inmates have a full day of work or education so spend relatively little time there, but assaults and incidents have dropped by 75 per cent compared with standard Australian prisons.

In England and Wales, the trend seems to be to create ever larger prisons to keep costs as low as possible. Daniel Dominguez, previously at Capita and now justice sector director at TP Bennett, has worked on around 20 prisons through his career, including the UK’s largest prison, HMP Berwyn in North Wales, which opened in 2017 with capacity for 2,106 male prisoners. Berwyn was created to an efficient and space-saving design, with wings designed to be run with just two or three prison officers for every 60 people. The prison, like most of the new prisons in England and Wales, uses variations of the panopticon design first proposed by Jeremy Bentham in 1781, with wings running out from a central control area like the spokes of a wheel. ‘Traditional design with a control room in the middle makes sense from an operational point of view,’ says Dominguez. ‘As soon as you split it up it becomes less efficient in terms of how you staff it – there’s no question it’s the most efficient shape.

‘When you talk about Government spending, prisons are the last thing people want to see money spent on – they want to see it invested in health and schools and transport,’ notes Dominguez. ‘There’s a lack of research and resources for prisons, and nothing different has been done in the UK and really tried and tested. Reduction in staff is also a problem as there are fewer guards and they are less experienced, while the acceptable number of prisoners in a wing has risen.’ Architectural innovation is discouraged by the risk-averse environment and the size of the rule book. ‘It’s a very restricted and constrained area of work, with the number one factor from the client’s point of view being to stop people from getting out. If you can do that, and at the same time make it more humane and less institutional, using colours and light, then that’s good.’

The Scottish Government is using its devolved powers over prisons to head off in a very different direction. Plans for a new, large-scale women’s prison were scrapped, and an existing women’s prison is being replaced by a smaller one, along with two new ‘community custody units’, the first of five, being built for low-risk offenders. ‘We have been looking across the globe and taking ideas from a number of different countries, from Scandinavia to Canada,’ says Tom Fox, head of corporate affairs at the Scottish Prison Service. ‘We are trying to create something that works for Scotland.’

The new units, in Glasgow and in Dundee, will be ‘airy, spacious, domestic and low rise’ and be home to 24 and 16 women, most of whom will have already spent time in custody. ‘It’s about reintroducing women back into the community at the end of their sentences; the facility will be promoting independent living within a secure perimeter,’ explains Fox. Women will have kitchens to prepare their meals in and washing machines to do their own laundry. ‘We are describing them as places where people take back responsibility for their own lives. A very large proportion of these women have been victims of physical, sexual or psychological abuse, so it’s giving them the confidence to do the normal things of life for themselves, prior to going back into the community. We believe this will be a game changer.

‘We are working to promote a new approach to the management of women in custody, a trauma-informed approach, which is being embedded in the entire custodial journey,’ says Fox. At £8.5m, the Glasgow building is not cheap. ‘Running costs are higher than a prison but if it makes the change we think it can make, in the long run it’s a very sensible investment,’ he says. ‘If you look at the cost of crime in our community, if we can keep people out of the criminal justice system it’s money well spent. If doing it cheaply worked, America would have the most successful system in the world! We have been doing the same thing and experiencing the same failures and it’s time to do something different. In Scotland we think it’s about doing the right thing – not the cheapest – and reaping long term benefits.’

From the criminologist’s point of view, it’s a step in the right direction. ‘Prisoners want to feel private in their cells,’ says Jewkes. ‘Most people are quite scared of others in prison, particularly those who have experienced trauma, so being in a shared cell in a block with 60 or 80 other people can be a frightening experience. It’s important to be able to retreat. They want some autonomy and choice, so they want to control things like lighting and heating and ventilation. They want time with their families and some outside spaces. These are fundamental things linked to basic human needs. When we are not providing them, we are potentially damaging people as a result.’

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