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21 June 2018
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24 November 2016 | Herpreet Kaur Grewal


Designing and operating prison buildings in specific ways could halve assaults on staff and significantly reduce the stress under which staff work, according to a panel of experts including prison managers, psychologists and criminologists.

The panel’s report, entitled Rehabilitation By Design: Encouraging Change In Prisoner Behaviour, was presented to MPs, peers and industry experts last month at a reception at the House of Commons. 

It sets out recommendations ahead of a £1.3 billion prison-building programme planned by the Ministry of Justice – the biggest shake-up of the UK’s prison system since the Victorian era. 

The report asserts that the primary aim for any new prison programme must be to address the huge reoffending rate and suggests that this could be achieved by making cost-effective changes to the built environment. Could this idea really work?

The authors investigated the ways in which behavioural policies and clever design principles have benefited prison systems abroad, and how these initiatives could be implemented in the UK. These changes, they say, could reduce overall life cycle costs, see prisoners rehabilitated and cut reoffending rates in England and Wales – some of the highest in Europe. Figures show that just under half of all adult prisoners are likely to reoffend within a year of release – costing the taxpayer £13 billion a year.

Let there be light

Professor Keith Humphreys of the University of Stanford and one of the report’s contributors, told FM World that prison managers and FMs of these buildings “can be quite influential in setting clear rules, ensuring that staff and inmates are aware of them, and creating a system in which the consequences of rule-breaking are clear, fair and promptly administered”. 

One of the recommendations includes managing light – an area facilities managers often regulate – in a way that reduces stress and depression. The report says sunlight is “frequently a scarce commodity in prisons and artificial lighting is often either unnecessarily harsh or too dim to carry out tasks”. 

Because of light’s role in regulating circadian rhythms, people need both good light during daytime hours and good darkness at night in order to sleep well. The study points out that prisons lack both, and this can lead to insomnia. In some cases, this can result in higher rates of irritability, aggression, depression and even self-inflicted death. 

The report was produced by property and construction consultancy Gleeds, and features contributions from a number of academics, including Professor Humphreys and Professor Yvonne Jewkes from the University of Brighton, with the support of management consultancy PwC. 

prison graphic

Building in changes to prisoner behaviour

Using design to reduce anger, frustration and violence

Pervasive levels of noise in most prisons can have profound effects. Damage to, or loss of hearing may be a serious and undertreated problem. There is little research on the psychological effects of noise in prisons, but findings in other settings show that noise can: 

- Damage mental and physical health; 

- Affect the amount and quality of sleep; 

- Increase levels of annoyance, frustration and aggressive behaviour;

- Reduce pro-social behaviour and meaningful interactions with others; 

- Interfere with concentration and patience during focused activity (e.g. education); and 

- Result in higher levels of medication being prescribed for health concerns. 

Therefore, avoiding auditory overload should be a key concern for prison architects. This will benefit both prison staff (including teachers, physicians and therapists) and prisoners alike. 

A new prison model 

A fundamental consideration is how prison sites are laid out. The report recommends a ‘campus model’ (or doughnut configuration), which instead of single prison blocks, incorporates different blocks with various levels of security and replicates features of a normal environment. It allows for a ‘step up, step down’ approach towards preparing for the outside world. This will help prisoners to improve their behaviour and creates a more flexible environment. With careful management, the campus model can support a safe environment for prisoners, staff and visitors.

Site and design considerations 

Facilities should be built to provide a minimum basic standard of living – access to daylight, sanitation, nutrition, physical exercise, and health care. The design of a new prison should consider: 

- Allowing the segregation of prisoners according to sex, age, criminal record, offence and current behaviour;

- Providing spaces for work, educational, recreational and creative activities; 

- Deterring and preventing prisoners from escape by providing a level of security appropriate to the risk posed by the prisoners; 

- CCTV systems and fire detection and control systems; 

- Potential for expansion; 

- Incorporating a ‘no-man zone’ or ‘buffer zone’ to reduce the potential for contraband being thrown into the grounds; 

- The location and proximity of rooms and spaces (e.g. a staff room should be central and kitchens and workshops should be near the delivery entrance); 

- Ease of access for the emergency services;

- Lots of open, external space so prisoners can walk between buildings (from housing to school, work, meals, family visits, therapy); 

- Landscaping to include green spaces, trees and plants; 

- Indoor spaces that provide ample natural light; 

- Excellent sightlines within buildings and around the estate; 

- Ample and secure access for prison vehicles; 

- Convenient access to the site for staff, visitors and volunteers; 

Pleasant and supportive work environment for staff; and 

- Parking for staff and visitors.