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How prison design can promote rehabilitation
Report from Gleeds argues that a new understanding of how prison design can promote rehabilitation should underpin the MoJ's new prison modernisation programme.

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Influencing offender behaviour

Rehabilitation by Design: Influencing offender behaviour is a recent (October 2016) report from Gleeds, a construction consultancy firm, which examines the way in which prison design can help reduce reoffending rates.

The report suggests that improved prison design could reduce assaults on staff by over 50%, significantly reduce the stress under which staff work, reduce overall lifecycle costs and see prisoners rehabilitated – cutting reoffending rates in England and Wales, which currently stand at some of the highest in Europe.

The report

Compiled by a panel of expert criminologists and psychologists with input from charities, prisoners, victims and prison managers the new report examines how reforming management methods and prison design could significantly reduce reoffending rates.

It asserts that the primary aim for any new prison programme must be to address the huge reoffending rate and suggests this could be achieved through the use of innovative yet cost effective changes to the built environment. It goes on to investigate the ways in which behavioural policies and clever design principles have benefited prison systems abroad, and how these initiatives could be successfully implemented in the UK.

Scandinavian normalisation model

Much of the report draws on examples of prison architecture in Scandinavia and looks at ways of integrating rehabilitation and prison design. I reproduce some of the key concepts below:

Normalisation refers to the ways in which prison can, where possible, be made to reflect ‘normal’ life. For example, the ‘men’ (not prisoners) have ‘rooms’ (not cells) and staff are encouraged to knock before entering. Evidence suggests that more normalised prison environments can have genuinely positive impacts on offenders’ behaviour. From a design perspective then, prisons should seek to ‘design in’ opportunities for prison life to mirror normal life as far as possible.

In the Nordic countries, prisoners mostly live in units of up to 12 individuals who share a kitchen/communal area (much like University halls). They are responsible for collectively managing a budget, deciding what they will eat, ordering from a central prison kitchen and eating meals together (an important socialisation skill). Alongside this they receive education on nutrition and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Using technology effectively

Certain technologies allow an environment to appear more ‘normalised’ yet retain its security measures. For example, CCTV, discreet electronic wrist bands (which allow prisoners to be tracked anywhere in the prison), listening devices and Blackberry-style communication aids could enable immediate/enhanced intelligence reports while being relatively non-intrusive. Under the normalisation model, these types of technologies should always be balanced with prisoner responsibility and self-control.

Freedom of movement through design

The use of glazing rather than bars, infra-red sensors, a secure outer perimeter with few prominent barriers within prison grounds, and excellent sight lines will create a more humane and ‘normal’ environment. Freedom of movement around the prison should be as unrestricted as possible because people who do not adopt the label of ‘criminal’ are more likely to desist from crime.

In prisons, high internal walls, thick mesh fences, numerous gates, cage-like interiors and heavy, vandal-resistant furnishings all communicate negative messages that may become self-fulfilling (e.g. ‘you are animals’; ‘you are potential vandals’). Put simply, conventional
prison design can reinforce criminal and criminalised identities.

Providing opportunities for ‘agency’

Agency is best understood as a sense of control; the knowledge that ‘I’ have some power to impact my life, my future and my direct environment. Opportunities for agency allow people to see how actions have impact. Providing agency through design (such as personal control of lighting in cells) is a fundamental part of the normalisation model.

Using prison design to reduce anger, frustration and violence

Recreational activities are important not only because they promote wellbeing but also because they alleviate boredom, which can cause a variety of negative behaviours such as frustration, violence, self-harm and drug use. Moreover, the opportunity to engage in (and become attached to) positive and ‘normal’ recreation is often a powerful motivator to sustain behaviour change. Two specific approaches are recommended:

  1. Providing access to recreation helps prisoners to release tension, reduce anxiety and manage excess energy. Prisoners on some (e.g. anti-psychotic) medications may suffer side effects of excessive restlessness and need access to a variety of prosocial activities. However, prisoners also need to relax or have quiet times away from other prisoners.
  2. Designing passive and active spaces. When planning external spaces on prison sites, consideration should be given to both ‘passive’ spaces, where prisoners (and staff) can be still, tranquil and contemplative, and ‘active’ spaces that allow prisoners to keep fit and have time in the fresh air. The latter might include sports fields, courts for ballgames, gym equipment (e.g. bars for pull-ups), walking paths and jogging tracks. Activities that combine both passive and active elements such as yoga should be adequately catered for.


All prison posts are kindly sponsored by Prison Consultants Limited who offer a complete service from arrest to release for anyone facing prison and their family. Prison Consultants have no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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7 Responses

  1. In my extensive experience of working with drug-using prisoners and researching how interventions with them can be improved, the lack of confidential and ‘safe’ spaces in which to conduct rehabilitative or supportive interventions is a great problem, particularly in older prisons. It is not surprising that people sometimes do not engage with such rehabilitative processes when it is difficult to help them feel comfortable speaking about themselves.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Hugh.
      It’s certainly a problem which is getting worse in many establishments. I was recently interviewing prisoners attending an education class on the landing…

  2. ASteve an ex prison manager I agree with some of the points however I feel that a lot of these ideas will fail unless we tackle a lot of social problems. Prisons particularly suffer from gang related issues and bullying that a lot of Scandinavian countries do not suffer. Therefore a communal area and managing a budget would lead to countless problems around bullying and the weaker ones suffering. We have a culture of top dog and gang leader in this country that would not traverse such ideas. We need to tackle bullying and gang mentality to reduce offending. This needs to start at an early age. Once people go in to custody they have already ingrained beliefs. Tackling issues when people enter jail becomes harder. Prison design can help but I feel we as a nation need to be intervening at an earlier stage in people’s lives so that the work has commenced and should someone enter prison then these ideas of design can flourish.

    1. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment, Andrew. For me, the key to a positive prison is having sufficient, committed and well-trained staff – a well-designed environment makes life better for both staff and prisoners.

  3. In my experience of working with many drug addicted prisoners, managing assaults, and bullying and gang related activity within the prison context, I concur with Andrew Clarkson and Dr Asher’s comments. However, I also strongly believe that staff training, and professionalism is also a key player in prison safety – for the prisoner and the staff.

    Our correctional centres are (many) ‘old’. We are left with the ‘design of the time’. Therefore, consideration needs to be made with – how do we work with what we have inherited? I have implemented prison programmes and events within my Centre which involve prisoners ‘losing the stigma’ of being a prisoner, whilst still ‘doing their time’. Engagement with some form of normality has been the key factor in these. Allowing the prisoner to participate as ‘part of the community’.

    Provision of the prisoner to ‘give back’ in a manner which provides pro-social learning for them, in their own way, providing them with ownership and achievement, has seen some great results from the prisoner group.

    However, to achieve this, attitudes required changing by the staff group. Culture, both prisoner and staff member, is one of the biggest challenges to changing the way a prisoner behaves. A long road ahead, but not impossible.

    Another issue you gentlemen have touched on is ‘starting at a young age’ re bullying. I agree wholeheartedly with this. I also work with those at risk of becoming engaged in the Criminal Justice System. Working through ‘how they got to where they are’ involves many social issues, and interpersonal issues. Until we can effectively address these issues in the community, we will be at odds of trying to help those who want to break the cycle to actually disengage from unhealthy ‘supports’ and have the ‘guts’ to make the break.

  4. Thanks for your comment Jenny.
    I totally agree, we need much more focus on what people in prison want to be/do as human beings. Who wants to be an ex-offender? For the vast majority of prisoners, being an offender is only a small part of their identity.
    Best Wishes

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