More than bricks and mortar: the relationship between architecture and recidivism

This week New York Governor Cuomo revealed the intention to transform a notorious former women’s prison into a site providing resources and assistance to women in need. The announcement served not only as reminder of the symbolic representation such buildings hold, but of the power inherent of the physical structures themselves. Changes in the physical structures of prisons over time tend to be indicative of social attitudes towards crime, punishment, and rehabilitation. 

Designing a prison is not a simple task. Aside from the obvious security concerns, new prisons need to be designed in a way that allows for meaningful rehabilitation efforts to take place. And that can only occur when we eliminate segregation as an appropriate method of containment for securing safety. 

Open layouts are increasingly being embraced as a way of fostering improved relations between inmates and staff and engendering trust. Those studying prison architecture, have all pointed to the traditional panopticon model (multiple levels of cells all centered around a singular observation point) as being most problematic in these respects. The suspected reason for this is the tendency for inmates to feel as though they are constantly being watched, which undermines the building of trust relationships. Yes, I can hear people already saying, “They committed a crime, we shouldn’t trust them!” But in the prison setting, such sentiments breed resentment—a major barrier to rehabilitation. This kind of set-up also decreases the amount of staff-inmates possible, because staff simply observe from afar, rather than interact. Notwithstanding Indonesia’s proposed plans to surround prisons housing drug traffickers with crocodiles, à la James Bond, there are a growing number of examples of how effective these prisons can be. 

Bastøy Prison in Oslo, Norway, at first glance may appear to be a modern-day version of the UK shipping off its prisoners to Australia, or the Alcatraz of the past. But with Europe’s lowest recidivism rate (16% compared to Norway’s 20% and Europe’s average of 70%), it’s another model of how architecture is shaping the prison experience.  Bastøy is engineered to act as a social microcosm, rather than an institution geared strictly at containment and punishment. Inmates live in self-contained cabins, are fed by professional chefs, and are charged with tending to the island’s farmland and animals and are given various other jobs. For many incarcerated, it represents the first glimpse at being able to contribute meaningfully to their community. Arguably the facility operates primarily as a transition system, facilitating prisoner re-entry; any prisoner in Norway is eligible for transfer to the facility once they have five years or less remaining in their sentence. Unsurprisingly, critics have been vocal about the so-called resort conditions on the island, but the results simply don’t lie. Prisoners who feel invested in the well-being of their communities will be motivated to succeed upon re-entry.  A similar model is found at Austria’s Leoben Justice Center, and Helsinki’s Suomenlinna Island also boasts a 20% recidivism rate.

A new women’s prison built in San Diego followed in Bastøy and Leoben’s footsteps. Its designers are seeking to adopt a campus-style model, which arguably also serves to foster the educational components known to reduce recidivism dramatically. Las Colinas’ prison village is already seeing a reduction in violence. 

Lest observers consider this a strictly industrialized world option, in the Philippines, there is an open-air prison, Iwahig Penal Farm, that from the outside, looks like an ordinary village surrounded by farm lands worked by its inhabitants.  But it is very much a prison, albeit one that is largely self-sufficient and also a tourist destination. The village features a decidedly artistically oriented rehabilitation program operating alongside its manual labour activities, where inmates not only perform highly choreographed dance routines for visitors, but also stock the “gift shop” (yes, you read that correctly) with handcraft goods. However the open concept applies only to minimum and medium security inmates, with maximum security prisoners housed in an overcrowded facility on the grounds. Prison staff live on the grounds, as do many of the inmate’s wives and children, with education services being provided to everyone on the penal farm. At the moment, Iwahig has the country's the lowest recidivism rate,

Recognition of the important role that buildings can play in social cohesion and rehabilitation efforts, the American group “Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Justice,” who  advocate for “responsible design,” not only in prisons, but also in communities—with the aim of reducing the need for the former.  Part of their actions have called for an end to the construction of solitary confinement spaces altogether. Members have also signed pledges not to work on any prison projects unless dramatic reforms are made, or not at all. 

Of course there are additional costs associated with the creation of such facilities, however analyses indicate they are marginal. But if your fundamental goal is to rehabilitate prisoners and actually reduce recidivism, then it’s virtually impossible that such investments will not yield dividends in the long-term. It feels as though we have to constantly remind people that the punishment is the loss of freedom—not the treatment we receive in prison itself, or the physical structure itself. But prison buildings have become an additional form of punishment, increasing isolation and threatening the mental and physical well-being of everyone involved. 

“Everybody says this, or something like it: I guess crime does pay…Maybe I should move to Austria and rob a couple of banks. It’s a reflex, and perfectly understandable, though it’s also foolish and untrue – about as sensible as looking at a new hospital wing and saying, Gee, I wish I had cancer.
To be more accurate, free people say these things. Prisoners don’t...No one, however down-and-out or cynical, wants to go to prison, however comfortable it may be.” 

When prisoners are treated like human beings, they are able to discover their own humanity.