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Government told to make prisons more like the rest of society's spaces

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Prisons should be designed to be more like the outside world, a group of leading figures has told the government.

The panel, led by construction consultants Gleeds, said creating prison conditions similar to living conditions in society was critical to rehabilitating prisoners.

Its report, Rehabilitation by Design, called for wider use of non-custodial sentences in England and Wales, coupled with fewer, smaller jails.

‘A more modest prison planning strategy (in size and scope) would enable prison architects and designers to embrace the principle of normalisation,’ said the study.

‘Prison conditions that, as far as possible, approximate to normal living and working conditions in society are vital to successful rehabilitation.’

The report added that prisons should be easily accessible by car and public transport and have welcoming visitor centres.

‘Prisoners’ families have huge rehabilitative potential because they can change a stigmatised identity,’ it said. ‘Desistance literature teaches us that if an offender feels part of a pro-social group, then they can begin to re-imagine themselves, and in turn re-imagine their life.’

Jails should also be designed to offer pleasant working environments for staff, who can then be better at their jobs, said the Gleeds-led panel.

‘Both staff and prisoners benefit from natural light with views of nature, noise control/good acoustics, comfortable temperatures, time spent each day in a variety of spaces including outdoors, few barriers between staff and prisoners, good communications, lack of boredom, ability to address personal issues, motivation to improve oneself, and of course safety and security.’

Gleeds worldwide chairman Richard Steer said: ‘By reviewing the way in which we design and operate our facilities we have the chance to make some truly positive changes to the criminal justice system, reducing reoffending rates and making our prisons both safer and more efficient for inmates and staff.’

One senior architect told AJ there was merit in the vision set out by the report - but that it would be hard to implement in practice.

’The real challenge would be delivering the capacity that is needed using this model,’ he said. ’Large scale prisons appear to be necessary at the moment to balance budgets and occupation needs.’

Professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers contributed to the Gleeds-led report, as did University of Brighton professor of criminology Yvonne Jewkes, University of Brighton senior lecturer in criminology Hannah Thurston, Stanford University professor of psychiatry Keith Humphreys, American justice facility design consultant Mark Goldman, and John Patience, chief executive of the Nehemiah Project charity.

The government last year announced plans to build five new jails this parliament. Justice secretary at the time Michael Gove said in November 2015: ‘This investment will mean we can replace ageing and ineffective Victorian prisons with new facilities fit for the modern world. We will be able to design out the dark corners which too often facilitate violence and drug-taking.’

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Readers' comments (5)

  • Is this a joke?

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  • Up until the 1990’s, prison planning was gradually becoming more progressive: smaller housing blocks, positive design of outdoor spaces and a re-balancing of the relationship between prisoners and staff through reduced hierarchy in prison planning. Over the past 20 years or so this trend has gone into reverse, in the name of efficiency. As the report notes, apparent construction efficiencies take a too narrow view when the cost of running a prison, security and re-offending are included and the prison service is now in an unsustainable situation.

    Whilst prison planning has gone into reverse, the architectural ideology behind prison design has all but disappeared. Not that it was always a positive ideology; but today the architecture of prisons is that of an industrial pragmatism that isn’t based on the broader purpose of the prison service to rehabilitate. The only discussion of environmental quality in prisons is in a negative sense (see quote in the article about designing out dark corners).

    The report’s proposals are a good start but the question is how can the oil tanker be turned around? What culture shift can occur that allows construction costs to be valued in the longer-term, broader costs and objectives of running a prison? Can prisons become a type of building that the majority of architects would be not only willing to work on, but be proud to? Should such a building even be called a prison?

    My current work via the RIBA Research Trust Award is to explore these questions, building on the work of this report and a parallel project called the Future Prison by Rachel O’Brien at the RSA.

    Roland Karthaus, Matter Architecture
    RIBA Research Trust award 2016

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  • This excellent well researched report highlights a total inadequacy of scrutiny and interrogative research into the lack of options being proposed for the current prison building programme. UK reoffending rates are very high as is our prison population. Incarcerating yet more of the population is not the solution. The one size fits all mega prisons being proposed are only slavish adherence to expeditious convenience and of little social benefit. These will do little to address core problems and leave a legacy which as Roland Karthaus states is unsustainable.

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  • The research behind the head image is still pertinent and worth reading. This was carried out by Hilary Cottam + Buschow Henley (now Henley Halebrown), Matthew Horne, Grace Comely. 'Learning Works: The 21st Century Prison'.
    Very sad to see how little has changed, it is a building type neglected to the detriment of society.

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  • With so many gated communities on one hand, and horrid sub-Parker Morris rabbit hutches on the other (and sometimes the two combined) I had the distinct impression we were designing the rest of society's spaces to be more like prisons.

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