Q&A: Richard Steer

A week after Richard Steer, chairman of Gleeds Worldwide, launched its independent report ‘Rehabilitation by Design’, Pentonville prison witnessed the murder of an inmate. Why does he think design can result in better prisoner outcomes?

How did you become aware of the issue of prisoner welfare?

It was after coincidental meeting at a Pact talk, the national charity for those affected by imprisonment. I met John Patience – chief executive of the Nehemiah Project in south London, a small charity that tries to help newly released prisoners find accommodation and work – and stay clean if necessary. I was impressed by its work and arranged a charity dinner which raised £25,000 for the project, which I hope helped raise its profile.

So what was the impetus behind the production of Rehabilitation by Design?

This period coincided with Cameron’s and Gove’s declared intent to allocate £1.3 billion to building nine new UK prisons. I thought you might get five with that figure. Gleeds has a lot of experience in this field and I wanted us to supply some thought leadership. US prison design expert Mark Goldman came on board and John Patience found the other panel members – criminologists and academics Hannah Thurston and Yvonne Jewkes (and Stanford University professor of psychiatry Keith Humphreys). The report took four months to produce from a standing start. It was fascinating.

Spending money on better prisons is a hard sell to voters isn’t it?

I’d concede that there is what one might call a ‘Daily Mail’ view out there but I think most people understand it’s unlikely that you’ll rehabilitate prisoners in buildings that are not fit for purpose – some prisons are over 200 years old. We looked at models in Denmark that give prisoners more autonomy, with rooms around common kitchens for instance – creating a sense of responsibility within the institution. Here, some don’t even allow inmates control over their cell lights.

So it’s not just about design?

Obviously not. But as well as inmate responsibility we need to address the safety and security of demoralised staff, which has a design component – their perceptions are important too. But prisons are noisy and can put inmates on edge. Simple things like soft furnishings change the feel of spaces and make them feel more like, dare I say it, student accommodation than prisons. It’s about bringing modern thinking to institutional design

How likely that the report will get the government’s ear?

It’s got the attention of Tom McNally (former minister of state for justice) and General Ramsbotham (former HM Chief Inspector for Prisons) so we’re hoping it’ll get to the secretary of state’s desk. Since publication a couple of governors have asked us to take a look at their prisons to see how they might be redesigned. We live in hope!