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what does prison look like

21 Jun 2023, Prisons, by

Curious about what life behind bars is really like? Our article “What Does Prison Look Like” takes an in-depth look at the realities of incarceration, from the daily routines to the living conditions.

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What comes to mind when you think of a prison? Is it rows of cells with iron bars, a large concrete building with high walls and razor wire fences? The reality is that prisons can look very different depending on their purpose, location and design. In this article, we’ll explore the world of prison architecture and design, from the history of incarceration to modern innovations in rehabilitation.

The history of prison architecture

The idea of incarceration as punishment has been around for centuries, but the design of prisons has evolved over time. In the 1700s, the first penitentiary, the Walnut Street Jail, was built in Philadelphia with the goal of rehabilitating prisoners through hard labour and reflection. It was followed by other penitentiaries in the US and Europe, such as Pentonville in London and Eastern State in Pennsylvania. These prisons were typically designed as large castles with individual cells arranged in a radial format, with the goal of isolating prisoners from each other and encouraging reflection on their crimes.

However, as the prison population grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, new designs emerged to accommodate the increasing number of inmates. The Auburn system, developed in New York in the early 1800s, featured long cell blocks with multiple tiers of cells, allowing for more efficient use of space. This design also allowed for more supervision of prisoners, as guards could easily monitor multiple tiers from a central location.

In the modern era, prison architecture has shifted towards a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Many new prisons are designed with natural light, outdoor spaces, and communal areas to promote mental and physical well-being. Some prisons even incorporate vocational training and education programs to help inmates develop skills that will be useful upon release. However, the debate over the effectiveness of different prison designs and their impact on recidivism rates continues to this day.

Different types of prisons

Today, there are many different types of prisons around the world, catering to a range of different needs. Supermax prisons are designed to house the most dangerous criminals and prevent them from causing harm to others. Minimum-security prisons, on the other hand, are more relaxed environments designed to prepare inmates for re-entry into society.

In addition to supermax and minimum-security prisons, there are also medium-security prisons that house inmates who have committed serious crimes but are not considered to be as dangerous as those in supermax facilities. These prisons have more restrictions than minimum-security prisons but are not as restrictive as supermax facilities.

Another type of prison is a women’s prison, which is designed specifically for female inmates. These prisons often have different programs and services than men’s prisons, as women have different needs and challenges while incarcerated. Women’s prisons also tend to have a lower rate of violence than men’s prisons.

The layout of a typical prison

Most prisons today are designed around a centralised structure, with cell blocks arranged in a rectangular or grid format around a central core of administrative buildings. This design allows for easy supervision and control of inmates, as well as separation of different groups based on their security level. Corrections officers can monitor the cell blocks and common areas from a central control tower or observation post.

In addition to the centralised structure, some prisons also have specialized units for inmates with specific needs, such as medical or mental health units. These units are often located away from the main cell blocks and have additional security measures in place to ensure the safety of both inmates and staff. Additionally, some prisons have vocational training or education facilities to help inmates acquire skills and knowledge that can assist them in finding employment upon release.

Prison cells: size and conditions

The size and conditions of prison cells can vary greatly depending on the location and time period. In the past, cells were often small, damp and overcrowded, with no access to natural light or fresh air. Today, cells are typically designed to be larger, with more modern amenities such as toilets, showers and personal storage lockers. However, conditions in some prisons around the world can still be incredibly harsh and inhumane.

In some countries, prisoners are forced to live in extremely cramped and unsanitary conditions, with little to no access to basic necessities such as clean water and medical care. In some cases, prisoners are even subjected to physical and psychological abuse by prison staff. These conditions can have a devastating impact on the mental and physical health of prisoners, and can lead to long-term trauma and illness.

The daily routine of a prisoner

The daily routine of a prisoner typically involves a strict schedule of activities, designed to promote rehabilitation and keep inmates occupied. These activities might include work, education, exercise, and access to religious or cultural programs. Meals are usually served in a communal dining hall, and inmates are allocated time for personal hygiene and recreation.

However, the daily routine of a prisoner can vary depending on the type of facility they are in and their security level. Maximum-security prisons often have more restricted schedules, with less access to programs and activities. In contrast, minimum-security facilities may have more relaxed schedules, with more opportunities for outdoor recreation and vocational training. Additionally, some prisons may have specialized programs for inmates with mental health or substance abuse issues, which can involve additional therapy sessions and support groups.

How prison design affects mental health

The design of a prison can have a significant impact on the mental health of its inhabitants. Research has shown that prisons with more natural light, access to outdoor spaces and colourful walls can help reduce stress and improve mental health. Conversely, inhumane conditions such as overcrowding, lack of privacy and isolation can exacerbate mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

In addition to physical design, the social environment within a prison can also impact mental health. Factors such as violence, bullying, and lack of support from staff and other inmates can contribute to the development or worsening of mental health issues. Therefore, it is important for prisons to not only focus on improving physical design but also on creating a safe and supportive social environment for inmates.

The role of security in prison design

Security is the primary concern of any prison designer, and many modern prisons utilise advanced technology such as CCTV, biometric scanners and electronic monitoring systems. However, security must be balanced with the need for rehabilitation and re-entry into society. Too much security can create an oppressive and hostile environment, which can ultimately lead to increased recidivism.

One way to balance security with rehabilitation is through the use of natural light and outdoor spaces. Studies have shown that exposure to natural light and fresh air can have a positive impact on mental health and well-being, which can in turn aid in the rehabilitation process. Additionally, outdoor spaces can provide opportunities for exercise and socialisation, which are important factors in reducing recidivism rates.

Another consideration in prison design is the use of colour. Certain colours have been shown to have a calming effect on individuals, while others can increase aggression and anxiety. By carefully selecting colours for different areas of the prison, designers can create a more peaceful and conducive environment for rehabilitation and re-entry into society.

Innovations in modern prison architecture

New technologies and design ideas are constantly being developed to improve the functioning and safety of prisons. These include modular or prefabricated cell blocks, energy-efficient building materials, and the use of virtual reality for training purposes. Architects are also exploring the use of communal spaces and semi-private rooms to improve inmate interaction and mental health.

Another innovation in modern prison architecture is the use of natural light and outdoor spaces. Studies have shown that exposure to natural light and fresh air can have a positive impact on mental health and behavior. Some prisons are incorporating outdoor recreation areas, gardens, and even rooftop spaces for inmates to use. Additionally, the use of skylights and large windows in common areas and cell blocks can provide inmates with a connection to the outside world and improve their overall well-being.

How architecture can impact prisoner rehabilitation

Recent years have seen a shift towards a more rehabilitative approach to incarceration, with a focus on programs that help inmates learn new skills and prepare for life outside of prison. Architecture can play a key role in supporting this approach, by creating spaces that are conducive to learning and growth. This might involve designing spaces that promote community and collaboration, or that allow for easy access to educational and therapeutic programs.

One way that architecture can support prisoner rehabilitation is by incorporating natural elements into the design of the space. Studies have shown that exposure to nature can have a positive impact on mental health and well-being, which is particularly important for individuals who are incarcerated. This could involve incorporating green spaces, such as gardens or courtyards, into the design of the prison.

Another important consideration in the design of prisons is the use of color. Certain colors have been shown to have a calming effect on individuals, while others can increase aggression or anxiety. By carefully selecting colors for different areas of the prison, architects can create a more peaceful and supportive environment for inmates, which can in turn support their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

The impact of COVID-19 on prisons

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on prisons around the world, with outbreaks of the virus leading to strict lockdowns and restrictions on movement. This has highlighted the need for more flexible and adaptable prison designs that can accommodate changing circumstances and challenges.

One of the major challenges faced by prisons during the pandemic has been the difficulty in maintaining social distancing measures. Overcrowding in prisons has made it nearly impossible to keep inmates and staff members at a safe distance from each other, leading to a higher risk of transmission. This has led to calls for alternative sentencing options, such as community service or electronic monitoring, to reduce the number of people in prisons.

Additionally, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of inmates, who have been isolated from their families and loved ones for extended periods of time. This has led to an increase in mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, among prisoners. To address this, some prisons have implemented virtual visitation programs and increased access to mental health services for inmates.

Comparing prisons around the world

Prisons can look very different depending on their location and the cultural context in which they exist. For example, Scandinavian prisons are often designed around the principles of openness, trust and rehabilitation, while prisons in the US are typically characterised by high levels of security and punishment.

In addition to these differences, there are also variations in the types of crimes that are punished with imprisonment. In some countries, such as Norway, the emphasis is on rehabilitation and imprisonment is reserved for serious crimes such as murder or sexual assault. In other countries, such as the US, imprisonment is used for a wide range of offences, including non-violent crimes such as drug possession.

Another factor that can influence the design and operation of prisons is the level of funding available. In countries with limited resources, prisons may be overcrowded and understaffed, leading to poor conditions for inmates. In contrast, countries with more resources may be able to invest in modern facilities and programs to support rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

Private vs public prisons: Which is better?

The topic of private vs public prisons is a highly debated one, with proponents on both sides arguing for the benefits of their preferred system. Private prisons are typically run for profit by corporations, while public prisons are run by the government. Some argue that private prisons are more efficient and cost-effective, while others argue that they incentivise increased incarceration rates and neglect the well-being of inmates.

However, there is also a growing concern about the lack of transparency and accountability in private prisons. As private prisons are not subject to the same level of public scrutiny as public prisons, there have been reports of abuse, neglect, and poor conditions in some facilities. In contrast, public prisons are subject to regular inspections and oversight by government agencies, which helps to ensure that inmates are treated humanely and that their rights are protected.

The relationship between prison design and crime rates

There is some evidence to suggest that the design of prisons can have an impact on the rate of crime in society. For example, some argue that the use of harsh prison environments and solitary confinement can lead to increased anger and aggression in inmates, which can in turn lead to increased recidivism once they are released.

On the other hand, there are also proponents of more humane prison designs that prioritize rehabilitation and reintegration into society. These designs may include access to education and job training programs, as well as more comfortable living conditions. Studies have shown that inmates who participate in these types of programs are less likely to reoffend upon release, which can ultimately lead to lower crime rates in the long run.

Future trends in prison architecture and design

As society continues to grapple with issues of crime and punishment, the role of architecture and design in prisons will likely continue to evolve. Some trends to watch for include increased use of technology, more flexible and adaptive prison layouts, and a focus on creating environments that promote healing and rehabilitation.

Whether you believe in the value of prisons or not, there is no denying that they are an important part of our justice system. By understanding more about the history and design of prisons, we can work towards creating better, more humane environments that support the needs of both inmates and society as a whole.