Britain's decrepit prisons are about to get a £3bn, decade-long revamp. The architects are facing a tough enough task to bring Victorian buildings to an acceptable standard – but what about the contractors who'll have to work behind bars?
It's 6am on a freezing winter morning and hundreds of men are standing outside prisons across the country, waiting to be let through the gates and subjected to exhaustive security checks. The fact that many are wearing hard hats is a clue that they have not been sent down, but are builders hired to carry out the government's massive overhaul of Britain's prison infrastructure.

The Prison Service has 137 penal establishments across the country, many of them inherited from the Victorians, and all have been given a slot in a mammoth refurbishment programme worth £3bn over the next 10 years. There are plans to build dozens of accommodation blocks, sports centres, education and catering services as well as to modernise existing prison wings and services.

This week, the service is to begin signing up consultants and architects to oversee the programme (see "The teams in full", overleaf).

By the end of the year it will have selected its preferred contractors from a longlist of 17.

Work is due to begin next year.

Inside job
So what awaits the contractors lucky enough to get the nod from the Prison Service? Well, after enduring an eight-week security vetting process, workers will have to arrive at sites early to make their way through the daily security inspections. These, as one would expect of high-security facilities, are on the thorough side. The workforce has to be searched, and everything from tools to sandwiches has to be catalogued and signed in by prison staff trained to be suspicious of anything. Similarly, all vans and machinery are inspected with a fine-tooth comb.

With the searches complete, workers have to be escorted to their duties and will have their every move monitored by the prison staff. To walk around between the sections of the prison building, the workers will again require an escort. One Prison Service insider made clear just how awkward this situation can be: some nights workers may finish at 2am, in which case they will have to wait until 7am for an escort to arrive to see them off the premises.

You would need to get to know your workforce on the projects, and make sure they were happy

Contractor vying for prison contract

The Prison Service is looking for the construction consortiums to come up with innovative ways to overcome the security problems involved in working in prisons.

"There are unique difficulties for building contractors working inside prison establishments because of the need to ensure security and safety standards at all times," says Paul Swinburn, head of property services in the Prison Service. Swinburn believes, however, that installing long-term Egan-style partnering contracts into the system would result in lower costs for both the Prison Service and contractors. "Longer-term contracts would enable firms to become fully familiar with the security restrictions and operational requirements at prison establishments and they would be able to move their security cleared workforce from one project to the next."

One leading contractor vying for the prison refurbishment work says working successfully in prisons is all about having a mobile workforce and efficient management procedures. "You would need to get to know your workforce on the projects, and make sure they are happy, because both we and the Prison Service are investing quite a lot to recruit, vet and train them to work in a secure environment."

The contractor adds that in order to win the prison work, contractors are also going to have to create unique working practices. "One idea is to train individuals how to use prison keys. This doesn't mean that workers have keys to cells but to areas that can be locked off so that work can be undertaken without security interferences."

Updating the panopticon
If working for the Prison Service presents a substantial challenge to contractors, the architects picked for the revamp programme also have their work cut out. According to one Prison Service insider, there are plans to accommodate an extra 20,000 inmates by 2013. But most of the work is refurbishment – and that means working with Victorian designs.

The first challenge is to accommodate the technologies required for the efficient running of a modern prison. Swinburn says that the plan is to design-in services and facilities in prison accommodation. "We want to ensure a flexible building service infrastructure is in place to make expansion to include for new services and IT with minimum disruption and cost," he says.

It is understood that the Prison Service is considering installing the capability for computer stations in cells. Internet access has been ruled out, but an intranet system is being considered.

Whatever the architects propose, the Prison Service's in-house designers will pore over the designs to make sure they conform to strict security criteria, and they may also be chosen to carry out detailed design plans if it proves economically viable. But the Prison Service is hoping that this design process will also give birth to innovative and secure solutions to prison management.

"Although the Prison Service clearly has strict design and construction requirements with regard to safety and security, I am looking to the supply chain to be able to come up with new cost-effective and innovative building solutions for living and regime accommodation," says Swinburn.

Another challenge for the architects is to design-in natural light and ventilation without compromising security

The Prison Service is looking for architects to come up with new ideas for security and prisoner monitoring, as well as looking at their well-being, and behavioural patterns.

One problem the Prison Service would like to crack is "passive heating". The idea is to limit the need for radiators in cells, which are a cause of injuries. One Prison Service insider said the design of M&E systems was going to be based on the thermal mass of the buildings. This way, certain parts of the prisons will be able to heat themselves.

Another challenge for the architects is to design-in natural light and ventilation without compromising security. "The aim is to bring more light into the prison premises without detracting from the fact that it is a prison and not a hotel," says one designer already working for the Prison Service. The designer added that there was only so much one could do for existing accommodation blocks but that for new-build sports halls and educational facilities, initial design ideas included windows that are too high to be crawled out of.

Rehab by pastel palette
As a stimulus to the architects' creativity, the Prison Service has commissioned South Bank University's Hilary Dalke to look at the use of colour in prison design. As course director of the university's design and colour unit, her brief is to find out what colours will help the inmates' rehabilitation programme and prevent them reoffending. Design teams will be expected to implement her suggestions in a series of pilots in different prisons.

Dalke says that the use of colour has to run hand-in-hand with the materials used for the fit-out and furniture. And she stresses that the use of colour will not on its own cure inmates' drug problems or find them legitimate careers, but can create a better environment for their rehabilitation and intervene in a cycle of self-harm, particularly for those with suicidal tendencies.

In the clink: The architects and consultants in full

Jacobs Gibb
Roger Dudley
White Young Green

Cost consultants
Cyril Sweett
Faithful & Gould
Turner & Townsend
WT Partnership

Project managers
Bucknall Austin
Cyril Sweett
EC Harris
Faithful & Gould
Jacobs Gibb
Scott Wilson
Stride Treglown
Turner & Townsend
White Young Green

Health and safety consultants
Cyril Sweett
Faithful & Gould
Scott Wilson
White Young Green

Environmental consultants
Jacobs Gibb
Scott Wilson
White Young Green