No bars to freedom

With £1.3bn to spend on five new prisons, construction has a golden opportunity to drag the criminal justice system out of the Victorian era and use design to change lives.

Can clever, inspiring and thoughtful architecture play a positive role in transforming the life of a person who, serving a long or short sentence at her majesty’s pleasure, seemingly has no hope? Or is there a valid contrary view that says it’s not the job of designers, project managers and consultants to make prisoners’ lives easier by offering up new prisons; that this mollycoddles the feckless and feral, who deserve nothing but punitive justice for harming society?

To help answer this question I have been working with a team of truly far-sighted specialists over recent months, who have shown me that while we are faced with one of the greatest construction challenges of recent times we are also blessed with a golden opportunity.

The government has asked our industry to build five new prisons at a cost of £1.3bn. Through the design and construction of these buildings, we have the chance to have an impact on the lives of those who live and work in prison in a truly positive manner. If we are smart we can offer a vision of incarceration that does more than park a problem whereby offenders are hidden away for a set period and then released, only to return to crime 12 months later.

I have come to the conclusion that we need to design and construct prisons that can help reduce the rates of re-offending in England and Wales – currently the worst in Europe. It costs us, the taxpayer, up to £13bn a year when more than 45% of adult prisoners re-offend within a year of release.

There are criminals who should and would never be released, and no end of clever construction will produce a building that can change their lives. However, for many, a prison designed intelligently has the ability to educate, reduce tension through appropriate use of light and colour and offer a 21st century solution rather than merely repackaging a Victorian concept of crime and punishment.

I have had stewardship over a new book, Rehabilitation by Design, which was launched at the Houses of Parliament recently. It draws on contributions from criminologists, designers, project managers, cost and management consultants and even has input from one of President Obama’s advisers on drug policy. Importantly, the writers also gained wisdom from victims of crime and prisoners, as well as those charged with managing prisons.

During my time managing the publication of this book I have learned that, above all, criminal behaviour and the treatment of those who commit crimes against society is both complex and challenging. It is not a quick fix and it requires thoughtful deliberation before the Ministry of Justice can begin this ambitious rebuilding programme.

Over recent years our prison stock has been left to languish as if they and the people they accommodate are beyond redemption. Prisoners have been hidden behind high walls and tucked away in dark, damp cells designed and built when Queen Victoria was on the throne and electricity was still a dream concept for most people.

What has come home to me while working on the book is that constructing prettier warehouses to hide away criminals is no answer.

So, can outstanding design change lives?

Well, we have found that by adopting new techniques trialled elsewhere, prisons can provide a place of education, change behaviour, improve life cycle costs, as well as reducing assaults on and turnover of staff.

Through an intelligent approach to imprisonment and an enlightened approach to management aided by new design, prisons can offer some form of rehabilitation during confinement, saving money and heartache.

As construction professionals, we have chosen to work in some capacity in the built environment and I hope to see structures as more than just buildings. I appreciate that not all utilitarian warehouses and manufacturing facilities can win the RIBA Stirling prize. But in redesigning and constructing prisons we can have an impact on people’s lives, both the victims of crime and those who commit offences.

It just needs thought and imagination and a desire to implement true change. We have proved that standing back and saying prison is about punishment rather than redemption is expensive, ineffective and unworkable. This attitude is more typical of society in 1816 – when many of our prisons were built – rather than 2016, when the knowledge and skills are available to transform lives.



Richard Steer Chairman Gleeds

Richard Steer

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Julian Barlow

Julian Barlow
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