We’ve been running a poll on the GlimmerSite asking what people would most like to see redesigned, and one of the leading vote-getters has been “prisons.” While I was researching Glimmer
, I did discuss the subject of prison design with Hilary Cottam
, one of the book’s featured designers. Cottam offered up some interesting thoughts which, unfortunately, never made it into the book—but I’ll share a few of them here.
To start with, Cottam believes that designers working on prison really need to first ask the most basic “stupid question” of all: What do we want prisons to do? What is the desired outcome that prison design should be striving toward?
The answer, in a word, is rehabilitation. If a prison doesn’t accomplish that goal—if it’s seen as just a place to “warehouse” people while they serve out their sentences—then the prison can end up creating as many problems as it solves. And that seems to be the case with current overburdened, dysfunctional prison systems: They don’t do an adequate job of preparing people for life after their prison stint, and consequently many who are released end up re-offending and back inside. When Cottam ventured inside British prisons some years back to study the existing design, she found that many prisoners were “sitting around doing nothing other than learning to be better criminals.” Her conclusion: “Our prisons don’t rehabilitate.”
What might she do differently? As part of her study, Cottam drew up plans for the redesign of British prisons. She approached it like a complex design project, which it is. Her design research group employed a lot of empathic research, talking to prisoners about needs, desires, what motivates them. This was combined with an exhaustive study of best practices around the world, looking at the kinds of prison systems that seem to do the best job of lowering the levels of recidivism.
What became clear, Cottam says, is that while prison design tends to focus on the bricks and the bars, it’s the “soft stuff” that matters—the educational programs, the daily routines, the culture that is created and fostered. Among other things, Cottam’s proposed redesign called for shared houses within prisons, where two to three dozen inmates might have free run over a multi-level space, complete with meeting area, workshop, a library, and opening out onto a garden. In Cottam’s design, about 80 percent of an inmate’s time would be devoted to learning, with heavy use of computer education programs: The idea is to design an online prison learning system so that every prisoner in the country can download and have access to personalized versions of it. This wouldn’t require a lot of on-premises teachers and classes, just some upfront design and ongoing facilitation.
The British government initially embraced Cottam’s plans, but the plans have yet to be enacted. However, a prison built about five years ago in the Austrian town of Leoben features a design that has some similar shared-housing characteristics. The New York Times Magazine
published a recent feature
on this particular prison, admiring its glass walls, which let in lots of sunlight. The prisoners there live in groups of about 15, sharing a single “pod” that includes private bathrooms, balconies, a shared kitchen. They also wear their own clothes, instead of prison uniforms. “The more normal a life you give them here, the less necessary it is to resocialize them when they leave,” the prison’s designer, Josef Hohensinn, told the Times
One problem with designing prisons like Leoben is that the public tends to balk—because many people see it as a waste of public money to provide nicer facilities to prisoners. However, Hohensinn notes that Leoben did not cost much more to build than a typical prison. Indeed, the shared housing or “pod” design in prisons can create certain efficiencies, because it cuts down on the costs and security needs associated with herding people throughout the far-flung areas of a big warehouse-style prison. As Cottam points out, “good design doesn’t have to cost more”—particularly if it can find ways to make the best use of existing space and manpower in prisons.
On a separate front, I came across a paper recently published by the RSA (Royal Society for Arts) in the UK, which presented ideas developed by British design students working with prison staff, family support organizations, and prisoners’ families to try to come up with new ideas for improving prison visits. This is a critical aspect of prison redesign because studies have shown that prisoners who maintain strong family relationships while inside are less likely to re-offend when they leave. (Cottam has pointed out that this is one reason why it’s a bad idea to build so many prisons in remote, middle-of-nowhere locations; it makes it much harder for family members and other visitors to get there.)
In any case, here are a few ideas students came up with:
- create and encourage the use of shared journals for prisoners and their visiting children
- use technology to allow for more frequent “virtual visits” with family
- allow prisoners and families to use on-premise gardens to grow produce together and then cook meals together
Would love to hear any ideas that readers might want to add to the discussion: How would you go about rebooting prisons?
No related posts, but check around GlimmerSite for lots of other interesting articles.