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Roland Karthaus, Director at Matter Architecture and project lead, discusses how careful prison design can reduce reoffending rates…
A team led by our architecture practice, Matter, has developed award-winning guidance to improve the design of prisons. Setting out a series of practical design principles, Wellbeing in Prison Design argues that the way in which prisons have been commissioned and built in the past has proved to be a barrier to rehabilitation and the welfare of the workforce.
Funded by the RIBA and Innovate UK, the team has engaged with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) Prison Estate Transformation Programme to provide independent guidance on design-related benefits within the prison environment and a method for monitoring the success of improvements over time. The guidance uses evidence from the field of environmental psychology to specify areas of design that will support better health and wellbeing of people residing in, working in, and visiting prisons. Focusing on planning processes, construction methods, layout, materials, landscape, atmosphere and accessibility, the guidance is informed by direct consultation with prisoners and staff at the UK’s newest and largest prison, HMP Berwyn. An electronic survey of the whole prison population at HMP Berwyn, provides a unique dataset and a means to monitor the effect of design improvements over time and across different establishments.
The guidance covers issues like lighting, acoustics and how design can support employment, positive choices and relationships. It aims to ensure that the design of any new prisons will help with desistance, rehabilitation and resettlement, arguing this will ultimately support its aim of reducing reoffending. The report also makes recommendations for embedding design values in the government’s commissioning and procurement process. This includes the effective engagement with local stakeholders in the design process, including governors, prison officers and prisoners; and the introduction of a Design Review for prisons. Design review is an independent process with a proven track record of increasing value in the commissioning of infrastructure and building projects and is described further in the report.
The overall objective of this work is to contribute to a reduction in re-offending, which currently costs the taxpayer around £13 Billion a year. The research demonstrates how the design of prison environments impacts directly on the health and wellbeing of all prison users and this in turn affects the likelihood of re-offending. Money spent on modestly improving the design of buildings therefore has the potential to generate savings many times the up-front investment. At a time when the prison and probation service is under extreme pressure, the question is not whether we can afford to design for wellbeing, but whether we can afford not to.
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