Words:
Roland Karthaus

Roland Karthaus scoops the Ethics & Sustainable Development category of the RIBA Research Awards with Redesigning Prison – the Architecture and Ethics of Rehabilitation

Recently, the debate on the purpose of prison has shifted, with a greater emphasis on enabling rehabilitation and reducing reoffending alongside punishment and secure detention.

Although architecture alone cannot direct an individual’s behaviour, environmental psychology proposes that the design of the built environment has a significant effect and can support positive change. A renewed government commitment to the rehabilitative function of prison brings the practical, economic and ethical issues together. It raises whether prison architecture can be designed to support prisoners to rehabilitative ends through design considerations. 

In 2017, supported by the RIBA Research Trust and Innovate UK, Matter Architecture led a multi-disciplinary team to produce a research-based design guide on supporting health and wellbeing through prioritising design measures in the prison environment. Working alongside the MoJ Prison Estate Transformation Programme, Matter explored an alternative methodology, drawing on evidence from environmental psychology and user experiences to inform design decisions. 

Fieldwork study visits to two recently built establishments, gave insights at a particular moment in the prison building programme. 

The UK’s most recently built and largest prison, HMP Berwyn, is a post-PFI design and has been subject to superficial adjustments to try and mitigate the potentially de-humanising effects of a largely logistical environment – including the installation of large-format images and use of bright colours. A survey was undertaken, with structured meetings with prison staff, acoustic testing and escorted ‘walking audits’ with officers and peer mentors from among the prisoners. Following the fieldwork, a survey was distributed to the entire population. 

HMP Low Moss in Scotland, designed by Holmes Miller, was also visited. Scotland’s devolved prison procurement produces significantly better, more progressive architecture. Survey work was not undertaken here, but it provided clear evidence that alternative approaches to design are realistic within the constraints of modern secure facilities.

 

Growing numbers of prisoners, overall cost and repeated news stories of prison disturbances are a strong impetus for change

  • Extract from detail level of Wellbeing in Prison Design Guide
    Extract from detail level of Wellbeing in Prison Design Guide
  • Extract from detail level of Wellbeing in Prison Design Guide
    Extract from detail level of Wellbeing in Prison Design Guide
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HMP Low Moss in Scotland, designed by Holmes Miller, was also visited. Scotland’s devolved prison procurement produces significantly better, more progressive architecture. Survey work was not undertaken here, but it provided clear evidence that alternative approaches to design are realistic within the constraints of modern secure facilities. 

Matter’s design guide is organised into three tiers: high, medium and detail level. At the higher level, the report recommends improvements to the processes of commissioning and design; including user-engagement in the briefing process as demonstrated in the fieldwork and a quasi-independent design review to continually test the balance between security, costs and qualitative provision. At intermediate level, provisions for specific buildings and functions in the prison describe specific aspects of the typical building design, including house blocks, visitor centres and cells. Strategic observations on relationships, outlook, external spaces, form and layout are described, with environmental considerations. Potential design responses are aligned with principles for improvement, related to the environmental psychology evidence base. The detail level describes specific opportunities for improved, integrated design issues at a construction level of detail. Issues such as acoustics, lighting and ventilation were explored. 

The guide provides qualitative, supplementary guidance in the design process of prisons. It uses evidence to link architectural measures to potential outcomes, so they can be more firmly valued during commissioning. 

While our research has informed the commissioning of new prisons, it remains to be seen whether the objective of providing quality space to support rehabilitation will survive maximum security/minimum cost procurement. But the wider commissioning, financing and procurement of prisons needs reform to realise meaningful change.  

Growing numbers of prisoners, overall cost and repeated news stories of prison disturbances are a strong impetus for change. Many of these crises arise directly from the emphasis on security beyond all other considerations. The dangerous individuals from whom society does need to be protected are a minority and there is strong evidence that greater use could be made of ‘open’ prisons for lower risk people. The tension between security and resettlement remains unexamined in policy and architectural terms, and we strongly believe a fundamental rebalancing is needed if people are to be reintegrated into society. We are exploring a new research project to test this proposition. 

The application of environmental psychology to architectural design is also underexplored, and with environmental psychologist Lily Bernheimer, we are probing its potential for other building types, including public and educational settings as well as shared residential spaces such as co-living. 

 

 

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