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Halden Prison, Norway. Author provided

How lessons in Scandinavian design could help prisons with rehabilitation

For many people who end up in prison, efforts at rehabilitation are hampered by historic, pervasive and deeply embedded social inequalities. The bloated prison system in England and Wales has become a dangerous place with little hope of rehabilitating offenders.

The “simple and unpalatable truth” about prisons in the UK, said the chief inspector, is that they have become “unacceptably violent and dangerous places”. They are characterised by poor mental health, drug use, and the “perennial problems of overcrowding, poor physical environments […] and inadequate staffing”.

Well-publicised incidents have also shone a spotlight on the dangerous conditions in many jails. One response to this situation which we are investigating is the design and aesthetics of the prison environment. British prisons are often compared unfavourably to those in Scandinavia, where good design is not just expected for the domestic home, but extends to the building of new prisons as well.

For example, officials at Storstrøm Prison in Denmark, which opened in 2017, described it as a “modern, humane, high-security prison that uses architecture to promote prisoners’ social rehabilitation”. Like Halden Prison in Norway, Storstrøm holds 250 men in buildings that are configured to form a small urban community – with streets, squares and centrally located community buildings.

The cells are unusual in having curved walls and furniture without sharp corners – to both minimise the risk of self harm and ensure optimum use of space. Views of the pleasant landscaping and countryside beyond are provided by two windows on adjacent walls in each cell. One cell window is almost floor to ceiling in height – and neither of the windows have bars on them.

While prisons in the UK are unlikely to truly emulate the Scandinavian model, several governors have sought to introduce innovative design elements into their establishments. The goal is to “normalise” the custodial environment in the hopes that this will help create a “rehabilitation culture”.

These include attempts to brighten accommodation units and visiting rooms, with softer furnishings, less overt security paraphernalia and graffiti and street art projects.

Graffiti art at HMP Guys Marsh in Dorset, UK. Author provided, Author provided

Some of the other (previously unthinkable) activities now flourishing in prisons across England and Wales include community music, performing arts projects and lectures. There are sporting opportunities such as parkrun, and numerous examples of voluntary charity work.

Several prison governors have embraced social media to publicise their innovative efforts. Some are commissioning research, employing academic advisers and inviting experts to give lectures to managers, staff and prisoners.

Perhaps the most concerted attempt to create a rehabilitative culture is at the recently opened HMP Berwyn, a £250m medium security prison in North Wales. Despite the standard limitations of prison design, attempts have been made at Berwyn to dramatically improve the physical environment.

This include large photographs and inspirational quotes on the walls, more colourful decor, and soft furniture in areas not usually associated with “soft” or “comfortable”, such as the prisoner reception holding cells. Outdoor spaces have been enhanced with seating areas, trees, flowerbeds and bird boxes.

A new prison lanuage

Berwyn has also implemented the new lexicon of the rehabilitative prison. Here, the prison’s occupants are “men”, not “prisoners”. Those men are housed in “communities” rather than “blocks” and in “rooms” not “cells”. Telephones and laptops have been introduced into these rooms, allowing men to access educational resources and arrange family visits.

Seeking to moderate the possible problems of scale (the prison can accommodate 2,106 men), management is committed to making “big feel small”, using the layout to create discrete communities of 88 men (roughly the capacity of most Scandinavian prisons).

Since the beginning of its phased opening in February 2017, Berwyn has not been without controversy with reports of concerns over drugs and safety. And while many of the new initiatives are undeniably well meaning, their ability to rehabilitate remains a moot point. The effects of the efforts made in Berwyn may not be known for some time.

Some argue that rehabilitation is a two-way social contract. The former offender must be willing to reintegrate into society – but society must do its part as well. The wider community must be open to employing ex-offenders, offering them decent housing, and generally helping them to have a future orientated outlook.

It is only then that the numerous harms done by life long forms of social exclusion – from the crime causing effects of imprisonment, to post-prison stigma – can be overcome and successfully maintained on release.

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