CAN ARCHITECTURE MAKE PRISON TOLERABLE?

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Architecture is magic. And no, I’m not just saying that because I’m writing for a real estate firm and I have a soft spot in my heart for clean lines and light pouring through windows. Okay, maybe I am – but that’s truly besides the point. Architecture is magic for me for many reasons, but I also believe that it’s magic for everybody. After all, how much influence does the space we’re in hold over us? How much better do you function if you’re in a space that’s overcome with sunlight vs. one that’s dark and gloomy? Or in a space that’s clean and organized vs. cluttered and chaotic? What about well-designed and personalized vs. one that’s void of personality? The fact is this – the space we’re in makes a difference. It alters our mood, shifts our perspective, and can even play into how productive we are. Now, of course, my views on this matter are fairly fluffy…but there are some notably more qualified folks who stand behind my beliefs as well. Those experts have led to incredibly interesting architectural projects aimed to better people’s lives. One example of this? Storstrøm Prison, located a mere 70 miles from Copenhagen.

Now, Storstrøm isn’t the first prison that’s required an architect’s eye to design – but what makes it so special is that it’s being called the most “humane and resocializing closed prison,” largely due to architecture that intends to support the inmates mental and physical well-being, as well as offer a positive work environment for prison employees.

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From an outsider’s perspective, design might seem like the last thing on a prisoner’s mind. But, for those who are incarcerated – prison is home. It’s their environment, night and day, and how it looks (and by association, makes them feel) can play a large role in their experience behind bars. According to a 2016 statistic from The Guardian, more than 10 million people call a prison “home” around the world. Speaking to how architecture goes hand in hand with how humane these homes are, the news outlet spoke with Isabel Height, who spent more than 35 years of her career working closely with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to advise countries on prison development:

“Architecture sends a silent message to everyone walking into any place. It tells you what to expect and where the limits of behavior are. Prisons are the same. In my view, design is crucial to creating an environment in which prisoners can live and not become institutionalized. This means providing spaces for staying in contact with families, work, education, and playing sport.”

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How does Storstrøm go about ticking those boxes? First and foremost, instead of basing the design off of the traditional prison mold, Storstrøm’s grounds have been modeled after a Danish village (lots of natural materials). Also to warm up the institutionalized and “behind bars” feeling that many prisoners face, the architects have designed more of a dorm-room feeling. Cells include windows, a bed, a private bathroom, desk, and reading lamp. Even outside cell walls, community and comfort is emphasized. As opposed to a central cafeteria (a typical prison feature), there are communal kitchens shared between 4-7 cells where prisoners prep their own food, as well as shared living spaces with furniture.

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Of course, it would be foolish to think that architecture is the only piece of the puzzle that can help better prisoners for eventual release and successful assimilation with the real world post-release. That’s why Storstrøm pairs humane architecture with a system that mimics the outside world. Outdoor spaces feature grass and sculptures, paved walkways connecting buildings, work is a requirement, and there are “amenities” such as a grocery store, church, visitor center, library, and playground for children visiting.

The environment, as a whole, helps prisoners to keep their dignity and remain some sort of notion of having a “life” – and it seems to be working. Fast Co reports that “Denmark’s recidivism rate is about 27%, about half of the United States’ rate, which ranges between 49% and 80% depending on the type of crime committed.”

Denmark’s prisons aren’t the only ones who have connected the dots that the way the world has always done it might not be the right way. In fact, The Las Colinas Detention & Reentry Facility in San Diego, which was designed by KMD and HMC architects, also used environmental and behavioral psychology to try to influence the experiences (and outcomes) of inmates and staff. Other notable prisons include Leoben in Austria and Bastoy in Norway.

 

 

 

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