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Penal progress: the UK's large prison population is fuelled by a high level of recidivism. This project for a model prison tackles issues of architecture, management and funding in an enlightened attempt to achieve lasting rehabilitation.

The penal system is one of the most direct manifestations of the power of the state, but is often also a revealing reflection of the national psyche and its attitude to punishment and rehabilitation. Surprisingly, for a prosperous, progressive Western democracy, the UK has a lamentable penal record. Britain's prison population is currently in excess of 70 000 (up 50 per cent from a decade ago) making it the second largest in Europe. The average cost of keeping an individual prisoner incarcerated for a year is [pounds sterling]27 000 (ten times the average expenditure on a secondary school pupil in the state sector). Despite such substantial investment, over half of British prisoners re-offend within two years of release.


Such high rates of recidivism means that the prison population is continuing to grow at an alarming rate (recently by as many as 700 a week), so overcrowding is endemic, hampering opportunities for education and rehabilitation and lowering staff and prisoner morale. To ease this pressure, the UK government is investing in the prison estate at historic levels, with 12 000 new prison places proposed within the next few years. Yet like their nineteenth-century predecessors. Britain's 'new Victorian' prisons are designed for security and control rather than for the rehabilitation and education it is increasingly recognized prisoners need. Most are poorly educated young men under 30 (at least 60 per cent of whom are functionally illiterate and innumerate), so without education and skills few will be able to build meaningful lives away from crime, no matter how often or long they spend in prison.

Any transformation of the penal system must start with the redesign of prison buildings. Prison architecture has a clearly discernible effect on behaviour, operational efficiency, interaction and morale. Last year, architects Buschow Henley were commissioned by a think tank organization working with the Home Office Prison Service to research and develop an alternative prison model that focuses more intensely on rehabilitation through a concentrated programme of intellectual, physical and social education. The model is not intended as a blueprint but rather a series of principles that might be adapted to support the wider concept of the 'Learning Prison' in which other aspects such as organization, management and funding would obviously play a part.


Key to this is the introduction of a system that groups together prisoners in small communities or 'houses' of between 30 and 40 inmates. This has two important consequences. First, the more compact spatial organization of the house reduces staff time spent on supervising and escorting prisoners. Second, the system places educational and other facilities at the heart of the building, within easy reach at all times of day, reinforced by a supportive social environment. This model also enables resources to be dramatically redeployed, from a current estimated ratio of 80:20 (costs of security versus rehabilitation) to a predicted reversed figure of 20:80, freeing up much-needed funds to invest in educational programmes, thereby helping to promote rehabilitation, reduce recidivism and initiate a virtuous cycle.

The notion of replacing linear wings by a series of smaller more autonomous units is not in itself a new or radical idea. American prisons have long advocated houses in a campus-style layout, and such principles have been adopted and imitated in the UK over the past 20 years. However, these do little more than reshape and downsize the traditional Victorian wing. In Buschow Henley's scheme, the proposed group size of 30-40 has the potential for social accountability--each prisoner being known within the community and personally accountable for their behaviour. Houses are semi-autonomous, not just dormitories, with communal as opposed to centralized facilities. Circulation is simplified and reduced. Buildings are arranged in a chequerboard formation, as opposed to pavilions marooned in space, each with a discrete external area that can be productively used for sport, games or gardening with a minimum of supervision.


Individual cells are replanned to make them less like domestic lavatories and more conducive to learning. In an inversion of the conventional layout, the bed is placed lengthways along the external wall at high level, freeing up space below. Storage is built in and each inmate is provided with a moveable table equipped with electronic tools for study. Washing facilities are contained in a small adjoining space (included in the basic 8 sq m allowance) so reducing pressure on prison staff to manage inmate hygiene and ablutions. Each cell is paired with a neighbouring 'buddy' one linked by sliding doors controlled by individual prisoners to mitigate the risk of self-harm.

While this new type of prison appears to be somewhat liberal, the arrangement of spaces and functions both inside and out is actually tightly controlled. Paradoxically, however, this proscription enables a greater range of activities to take place, and makes general supervision easier. In this environment the prisoner is judged not by their degree of conformity, but by the scope of their activities and achievements, so laying the foundations for genuine rehabilitation. As Martin Narey, Director General of the UK Prison Services observes 'We have got to accept that prison must be a humane and constructive place, not least because all but 23 of my population are going home some day'.

Change, however, invariably takes time, especially across such a huge and complex organization, burdened by a historic lack of investment. Buschow Henley's proposals (and the broader report of which they are part)* are currently doing the political rounds and further developments are awaited with interest. In the late eighteenth century, John Howard's pioneering reforms first postulated the link between physical environment and a moral programme of rehabilitation, paving the way for the Victorian prisons (that were progressive in their day) and a general modernization of the penal system. It would be heartening if a similar leap of imagination could be made again over two centuries later.




* Learning Works: The 21st Century Prison by Hilary Cottam, Buschow Henley, Matthew Home, Grace Comely, published by The Do Tank, 2002.
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Title Annotation:Project
Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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