Prison design is not something most people think of as a tool to prevent reoffending. But, says Chris Liddle, it can play a crucial role in education and rehabilitation

The headline in my copy of The Times was clear and decisive: “Clarke to shut six prisons”. This was followed by the “revelation” that the new chief inspector of prisons was delivering a strong indictment of prison life by declaring some of it “hellish” with “filthy conditions” and “filthy cells”.

This was immediately followed by a response from Jack Straw who commented: “It is not prison services that fail when prisoners reoffend - it is the offender.”

The background of austerity and spending cuts has removed anticipated opportunities for the construction industry in this sector, with existing prison projects cancelled and many new prisons postponed for at least four years. While financial savings might be the primary driver, this decision might also renew the focus on stopping prisoners returning, often only a short time after release.

The prevention of reoffending is, of course, the key issue in any modern and caring society, in parallel with the objectives of punishing the offender, protecting the public, and making reparation to the individuals and communities that have been harmed.

We know that catching offenders is a good way to deter people from committing crimes but our focus must surely be on training, rehabilitation and reduction of reoffending in our society. 

We know from work in hospitals and schools how the internal environment is a key factor in promoting health and wellbeing. Design in the prison context has a similar role to play

Chris Liddle, HLM Architects

As an architect, and having been privileged to be involved in one of the most difficult of building types - the architecture of incarceration - over the past 12 years, I have learned a great deal from a standing start, and during that time I have never witnessed either “filthy conditions, filthy cells” or any “hellish circumstance[s]”.

Perhaps the reason for this is that most of my experience has been working in a private prison sector where operationally driven design for the benefit and welfare of both prisoners and staff is of paramount concern. Some of these design and architectural outputs have, perhaps surprisingly to some, produced some award-winning buildings.

We know only too well from design work in both hospitals and schools how the internal environment, with its renewed focus on daylight, sunlight, colour and environmental/ sensory stimulation, is a key factor in promoting the health and wellbeing of patients, and creating the best learning response from students and young people. 

Design in the prison context has a similar role to play. Developing and working with a prisoner consultation forum, we have improved our design response to the promotion and delivery of education and training and access to social and healthcare services - all of which play a central role in creating future employability, personal achievement and self-respect; key factors in successful reintegration into society.

Fewer prison places in the future will mean we have no choice but to prevent reoffending if the system is “physically” to cope. In the first instance local authorities, which hold the key to so many local services and initiatives, must make room for increased awareness and targeted initiatives towards preventing offending and reoffending within the communities they serve.

Within existing - and often tired - custodial facilities, equal focus must be given to creating future employability through education and training, with enhanced access to necessary support from social and other services.

Through re-configuration and re-design, there is much that the construction industry can offer to help facilitate this enhanced focus and approach. We need to develop a much more localised model for commissioning and delivering community-based offender management services.

The construction industry stands ready to help deliver the reconfiguration and improvement of existing facilities and new “step down” centres within our communities leading to a promising future for many - and no turning back.

Chris Liddle is chairman of HLM Architects