Pretty, isn't it?
I am hearing concerns from operational people about the design of the planned new place prison at Wellingborough, for which the £250m construction contract was let to Kier in May this year.
The design by Bryden Woods architects does away with the traditional open gallery layout, with the familiar wings of three tiers of galleries radiating out from a central point, from which they are all visible, and with all prisoner movement through that central point. This, says the Guardian in rather gushing piece, is because the traditional design used in dozens of prisons is dehumanising. Instead, there will be a series of separate floors, with cells arranged around courtyards, thus creating “smaller, more social zones, where prison staff might be able to develop better relationships with prisoners through more direct contact and conversation”.
The design is seems to draw on a 2017 study by Matter Architects (here) which was developed from an impressive review of criminological and architectural research. The researchers used a neat tool for exploring the design electronically with staff and prisoners. The study also includes a devastating critique of the design of Berwyn prison, the flagship for public sector design and build post PFI, opened in 2017 but still only three quarters full, but already generally agreed to have been a very expensive disaster (here).
I have sympathy with central point being made, that we invest billions in building vast new public facilities without any real understanding of what it will be like to live in them, partly because I have recently had cause to see from inside some hospitals which also badly fail that test. They included a recently built acute ward where the noisy nurses’ station is just feet from patients, all surfaces reflect noise and where despite being on the 6th floor, most beds don’t much natural light. And a ward where cancer patients (not me!) lie all day having ghastly stuff pumped into their veins, in a building surrounded by trees, where architects have inexplicably started the windows only at 8 feet above the floor, thus no one can see a single tree and the horrible neon lights have to be on all day, even in June – a building barely 10 years old. (Guantanamo should be kept open just for that architect.) Conversely, a low rise cottage hospital where beds are widely spaced, away from but in sight of the nurses’ station, with huge picture windows into a garden.
So I readily agree with the premise that in institutions having total control of and responsibility for people, design can have a huge effect for better or worse.
So why am I sceptical of this study?
First, I don’t see any effort to learn from the many different designs that I have been tried in the past in this country (with the sole exception of Berwyn). All the studies of prisons quoted seem in the Matter paper to be foreign, especially from America. Well, America is not England, especially where prisons are concerned: the whole philosophy and operational style and experience of American prisons is different.
Also, the assessment of design features is solely from the point of view of the psychological well being of prisoners: security, control, the safety of staff and economy are not considered worthy of study. That is absurd, in a prison. There is a long, sad history in the design of English prisons of new, non-traditional designs, focussing on features which might make good sense outside of a prison – courtyards, short spurs, corridors nor galleries – which have been found to contribute to lack of control and safety in report after report. Albany and Holloway spring to mind. No effort has been made to track down and absorb those lessons.
There is, too, a naivety about prisoners. Attractive though a design may be that recalls an IKEA café, there are some rather important differences between prisoners and the average IKEA customer. Then, there is a complete failure to understand that ‘control’ and ‘rehabilitation’ are not mutually exclusive alternatives: on the contrary, they are deeply linked. In a design where staff located centrally cannot see what is going on, the consequences will be that bullying, intimidation, dealing and actual violence will be harder to spot, and to stop. Moreover, staff who find themselves alone on the short spurs beloved of these designers will inevitably respond by spending as little time in those areas as possible, where they will feel vulnerable and cut off, thus handing over control of that space to the strongest prisoners. So much for improved staff prisoner relationships.
In that context it is odd that the researchers appear ignorant of recent research by Alison Liebling which demonstrates that the features of the prison environment most strongly linked to lower conviction rates are not pot plants or nice pastel colours, but whether prisoners feel safe and unthreatened. That is less likely in the sort of fragmented design now proposed.
It is also characteristic of academics to regard cost as a somehow improper consideration, reflecting some ideological obsession of Government. No, it is reality. We live in a country where huge sums are needed to restore the NHS, social care and housing, amongst many other services far more deserving than prisons, to a half way decent standard, and where the economic disaster that is Brexit will be quickly followed by the economic disaster of the break up of the UK, not to mention forecasts of lower growth internationally for the foreseeable future. Despite what politicians promise in this Election, in the real world you cannot just print money without limit.
This is relevant because the operational people I talk to foresee that in order to make the proposed design work at all safely, it will be necessary to considerable increase staffing levels, to ensure there are always staff on every landing while prisoners are in association. I’ve heard that that may increase operating costs by as much as 30 or 40% above a traditional design. Given that the main factor propelling the prison system into its worst crisis in a generation has been tight staffing, this does not seem a clever time to come up with a design which requires much higher staffing levels for the same number of prisoners.
There is a lot of value in the Matter study, which I hope future designers will make use of. But I think the odds are heavily against this particular design proving successful.
A last observation: PFI has rightly got a bad press, and now looks a bizarre way to make major capital investment. However, it had one compelling argument: that the designer and builder was also the operator, and therefore had every incentive to ensure the design was workable. (Interestingly, this was only true of prisons: in PFI hospital and schools, the operator of the core service was the public sector, so the designer and builder had every incentive to cut corners.). We have already seen, at Berwyn, the public sector make a complete shambles of design, with the consequence that the prison is still only half full, years after opening. (A further weakness is that the design and build is now managed within the centre of the MoJ, not by the Prison Service itself: enough of ‘experts’, eh?). At Oakwood, too, I heard the private sector operators weren’t too pleased to find the public sector had designed a prison with key areas without CCTV coverage. It may be that PFI got a few things right, after all.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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