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Danna Walker: where the UK gets prison design wrong

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Architect Danna Walker talks about why prison design matters and how the UK could learn from other countries

Last month the Ministry of Justice took back control of Her Majesty’s Prison Birmingham from outsourcing firm G4S after inspectors concluded it had fallen into a state of crisis.

The government is also currently in the midst of a prison building programme to provide extra capacity.

On 30 August, architect Danna Walker, founder of architecture diversity social enterprise Built By Us has presented a BBC Radio 4 programme on prison design and the lessons to be learnt from past mistakes.

We spoke to her about the programme, the Architecture of Incarceration, which you can still catch on iPlayer.

Why does prison design matter?
Prisons are an important part of society. It is vital to look at what we are aiming for as an outcome from our prison buildings and how we can reduce reoffending. It is simplistic to say design can deliver everything we need from prisons – it has to be tied into policy. But it is clear that we are using a number of old buildings – Brixton prison is 200 years old – that are not suitable for modern needs.

It has to be about outcomes. I recognised there is sometimes an immediate reaction that prison is supposed to be an unpleasant experience and punitive. But we aren’t seeing the number of people returning to prison get lower.

It has to be about outcomes … we aren’t seeing the number of people returning to prison get lower

We saw examples abroad where design is helping to address that. Good prison design makes it easier for people to do their jobs and make these facilities places where inmates can get the required help with rehabilitation.

What are the design faults with Victorian prisons in the UK?
I visited Brixton prison for the programme and the first thing that hits you is the soundscape. The internal spaces have hard surfaces and the sound bounces around you. They are dark places and you can lose track of time and of the seasons. Also, when I was there, people were collecting their food and going back to the cells with it. There was no communal place for prisoners to eat.

The cells in Brixton look exactly like those in [1970s TV series] Porridge. But I was shocked at how small they were. It was a shared space not much bigger than an average bathroom. The windows were high up and covered with mesh, so you only saw a tiny bit of sky.

Where are they doing it better?
I visited Halden prison in Norway, which takes a much different approach. I found it inspiring how the architects [HLM Arkitektur in collaboration with Erik Møller Arkitekter] used space to connect prisoners back to the outside world. There was a part at the front of the building where inmates could wave goodbye to their families after visiting was over.

There were no clanking doors and echoes, which calmed everyone down. There is also lots of art there. Wherever you look, there is something stimulating.

They also made a lot of the cell design. The cell size in Halden was similar to Brixton but there was just one person living in each cell. The cells had a desk that faced out onto a normal-sized window so prisoners could catch up with work or training. There are lots of quite small things that make such a huge difference.


Yard at Halden Prison, Norway, featuring commission by graffiti artist Dolk. Designed by Erik Møller Architects and HLM Architects with landscape architects Asplan Viak Bergen. Client: The Department of Justice and Statsbygg. Inmates: 250.

Source: Trond Isaksen

Yard at Halden Prison, Norway, featuring commission by graffiti artist Dolk. Designed by Erik Møller Architects and HLM Architects with landscape architects Asplan Viak Bergen.Client: The Department of Justice and Statsbygg.Inmates: 250.

Is it realistic to replicate the Halden approach across the UK?
One of the key things there is about the ratio of staff to prisoners, which is much higher there. They bring in people with particular skills such as in counselling or health. That makes it a much higher cost per prisoner. It is a difficult balance between the philosophy and ensuring it is deliverable on the budgets available.

What do you think about the UK government’s approach to new prison design?
The government is going for a number of super-sized prisons. I question where that is coming from. As we have seen, prisons need to be about more than just efficient use of space. We need to dig down and ask questions about how effective they will be about what we want to achieve. Is it about having more people on site so it is easier to support specialist staff, or reducing the ratio of staff to prisoners?

The government is closing urban prisons and moving them into the countryside

The government is also closing urban prisons and moving them into the countryside. In places like London, you can see that the value of land is driving some of that. But at Halden there is a lot of effort to enable prisoners to keep connections with their families. If friends or family face a long journey to visit then it is easier for those ties to break.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Roland Karthaus

    Quite right and good that these shortcomings continue to be raised, but we need some practical ideas to improve things as well as pointing out the problems. Some more thoughts here:

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