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FRIGHTENINGLY, WHEN THE PRISONERS WERE INVITED TO DRAW A BETTER PRISON FROM THEIR OWN PERSPECTIVE, THEY DREW THE BUILDING THEY WERE IN

OPINION - WILL ALSOP

Can life be improved by architecture? This question is rarely asked and never answered. We all know the answer is yes it can; but how effective can it be?

I have just spent two days in prison working with long-term inmates to explore possible new prison models.

In the particular institution I visited there is no architecture.

Within the perimeter wall is a collection of buildings that house 400 prisoners. You could suggest that they are highly functional and that is all that is required of a prison, but the structures are not even particularly practical.

Each cell is tiny and, considering the occupants spend 12 hours a day locked up in them, they should be more humane. Can you imagine lying on a short bed staring at a WC, a wash basin and one small window that does not even open properly and has been glazed in polycarbonate that has been sandblasted - rendering it translucent rather than transparent? Unwittingly, the revolting condition of the cells has become a part of the punishment. We must remember that prison is the punishment and not the conditions and treatment therein.

The cells are grouped in blocks of approximately 100, with associated areas within (associated areas are really recreation and mixing spaces).

These spaces contain table tennis, pool tables and table football, as well as an ironing board. This is an area that tends to be noisy, and therefore can be a source of intense irritation to those who wish to be quiet.

A lack of tables means that when the food arrives - on heated trolleys from what can be a long distance - it has to be eaten sitting on the bed, thus avoiding any social or civilised conversation while dining.

The grounds have no trees, except for an area that the prisoners never see, let alone enjoy. I could expand further on the awfulness of the situation but I won't - except to say that the work programmes are boring and the pay is bad.

Frighteningly, when the prisoners were invited to draw a better prison from their own perspective, they drew the building they were in. They had become institutionalised. Slowly, through drawing and discussion, new horizons began to emerge.

What if the blocks of cells were smaller? How small? Say units of 12 cells per block.

Perhaps in such relatively small numbers they could have their own sitting room with cooking and dining facilities. Perhaps recreation would take place in a 'club' as opposed to spaces immediately outside their cell.

Why not more useful work that could lead to a qualification?

Horticulture and growing food is a good example. Longer-term prisoners showed a great interest in watching things grow and tending to plants.

This would aid awareness of seasons, so that time is demonstrable. Eating together around a table promotes a sense of social behaviour. The provision of shared facilities with the surrounding community allows a sense of interconnection with the world.

All of these things would give a much greater degree of reintegration with the world when the time comes.

Time is felt more vividly in this environment than anywhere else. Eighteen years of incarceration can ensue from a reckless five-minute period.

To dwell upon these contrasts is a major source of concern.

The prison should allow a future to be constructed while a past is laid to rest.

Architecture has a role.

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