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UEL researchers to present report on improving prison design in Parliament


UEL team hope their findings will result in better designed prisons in future 

Researchers from the University of East London (UEL), as part of a team led by Matter Architecture, have developed an innovative set of design principles that they hope will result in better designed prisons.

Roland Karthaus, a senior lecturer in architecture at UEL and founder of Matter Architecture, and UEL architecture graduate Agata Korsak, argue that prison design is key to preventing prison-based violence, ill-health, and even re-offending.

The pair will present their report, Wellbeing in Prison Design, at a Posters in Parliament event on 20 February.

The report calls for an increase in green spaces, better positioning of cell windows, softer lighting and measures to allow greater personalisation of prisoner rooms, among other measures. 

Mr Karthaus said, “There are many studies proving that well-designed hospitals help patients get better quicker, and that is relevant and useful when it comes to prison design, whether that’s new prisons or renovating existing ones.”

Part of their research included walking audits of HMP Berwyn, which opened less than a year ago. It is the largest prison in England and Wales and the second largest prison in Europe, with a capacity of 2,106 category C (low-risk) prisoners.

Last year, HMP Berwyn won the Community Benefit category in the prestigious Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors Awards for Wales.

Despite such an accolade, however, the researchers found examples of limited ventilation, air conditioning, or openable windows in some areas, often due to prison spaces being used differently from their intended use.

The use of artificial light was also highlighted as potentially causing a stress-inducing environment, and failing to meet best practice for residential, work and education facilities.

The prison also includes three housing blocks which the architects tested for noise levels. They found noise reverberation to be two to three times the limit for intelligible speech, creating a ‘shouting culture'.

Mr Karthaus said, “The cost of re-offending is estimated to be between 9.5 and 13 billion pounds annually, and prisoners are seen as a ‘hidden’ problem which becomes a public problem when they are released.  Prisons have to help people re-integrate, not just to lock them up. We can't afford them not to.”

Along with prison audits, the team carried out structured interviews with prison staff and prisoners at HMP Berwyn, which revealed dissatisfaction with basic facilities such as toilets, showers and drinking water points.

The innovative design principles recommend a re-think around staff areas to foster a sense of professionalism and pride at work, which they hope will help with staff recruitment and retention.

Korsak said,  “People often forget about the staff, who have committed no crimes but have to work in sometimes terrible conditions.  Buildings can prevent them doing their jobs properly.”

The team also engaged all resident prisoners, called men in custody, using an online survey. A total of 309 prisoners replied, representing 45 percent of the population. Their responses fed into the final report recommendations.

Karthaus said, “People in custody tend to have more physical and mental health needs than the population at large, on average, our own survey of men in custody found that 30 per cent reported having specific health needs, and 31 per cent said they had mental health needs. We’re also facing an increase in our older population.

“So, one of the principles we set out is the need for accessibility and dementia audits when it comes to designing and adjusting prisons, to meet the needs of an aging prison population.”

The survey revealed that men in custody cited heating and ventilation as the worst things about their rooms, along with other parts of the prison, rated poorly for noise levels. 

However, rooms were rated highly for the level of privacy, along with showers, phones, and the ability to socialise afforded by the prison.  

But the researchers would like to move beyond current restraints, by calling for internal security barriers within prisons to be removed, and replaced with tracking technology, to facilitate movement and better socialisation between men in custody and staff. 

Ms Korsak concluded, “Our design principles also look a lot at the relationship between prisons and local communities, as we wanted to suggest ways to better support re-integration once a custodial sentence is complete, it’s not just about the physical design.”

The report was funded by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and Innovate UK, with support from the Ministry of Justice Prison Estate Transformation Programme.  

The full project team included justice and policy experts Rachel O’Brien and Richard Barnes, and environmental psychologist Lily Bernheimer.  Anthony Hu, another UEL architecture graduate now at Matter Architecture, was project manager.