Prison design, prisoner well being and ‘green’ building – prison design from Iceland

Many thanks to Yvonne Jewkes for the recommendation of this website about the design of a planned women’s prison in Iceland, which brings together discourses about prison spaces and green building, and raises some interesting questions about the purpose of ‘green’ prison design.

In designing the prison spaces, the project team of Joaquin Millan Villamuelas, Cristina Viacario, Belen Gomez, Lurdes Martinez, Javier Urrutia, Ignacio Jimeno and Kristinn Olafsonn from OOIIO Architecture intended “to design a prison that doesn’t look like a prison, forgetting about dark spaces, small cells, and ugly grey concrete walls….. we based the building design on natural light, open spaces, and natural green materials like peat, grass and flowers.”

Instead of designing one large building (like a “typical repressive old prison”), they decided to break it into several “human-scale, connected” pavilions, which must be efficient and functional to enable the spatial separation of prisoners, but which must have “natural light and exterior views, to increase the feeling of freedom”.

The architects also have an eye to the speed and ease of construction, and to the eco standards of the building, planning to draw upon Icelandic vernacular architecture to insulate the building. The prison facade will be constructed from peat-filled cages, planted with local flowers and grasses, both to provide cheap, prefabricated thermal insulation, and to deliver a facade “that changes with the seasons”, making prison life “less monotonous and more human and natural related”.

Whether prisoners housed within this planned prison will experience heightened wellbeing as a result of the prison design or the flowering walls is yet to be seen, but recent work within criminology has drawn attention to the importance of understanding the effect of prison design. A recent paper published in Punishment and Society directly considers the  contribution that the physical environment makes to the pains of imprisonment, and Ioana-Christina Siserman (2012) considers environmental psychology as a means to understanding the effects that prison space has on transforming and shaping the behaviour of inmates. Thinking about the ‘natural’ elements of the Icelandic prison, as Laura Jackson (2003, 192) has argued “judging from the literature, the most healthful architecture exposes inhabitants to natural light and ventilation, views of greenery, and close proximity to outdoor green space”.

A separate but related discourse within building design literatures focuses on prisons as ‘green buildings’, drawing attention to the use of distributed energy resources (DER) to reduce energy consumption. Such projects include rooftop photovoltaic systems, molten carbonate fuel cells, combined heat and power (CHP) units, all of which minimise energy bills and/or carbon emissions. A recent report on Santa Rita Jail near San Francisco, CA, is an example of this kind of work.

In the United States, according to Andrew Webster (2010), the building of ‘green prisons’ or the retrofitting of eco technology to existing buildings has dual benefits, first in lowering the cost of incarceration, and second in teaching prisoners valuable skills, which “could range from maintaining a solar farm to organic farming or other similar trade skills that would give them a better chance of avoiding recidivism, i.e. falling back into criminality, and therefore, a better chance of staying out of prison once they are released”. Essentially he argues that  “environmentally friendly prisons will cost less to build and operate, decreasing the cost of housing inmates; and the use of inmates to maintain the facilities will decrease the incidence of violence within the facilities and recidivism”.

‘Green’ building means lots of things – from increasing natural light and exterior ‘natural’ views, to minimising energy consumption and making prison buildings thermally efficient and carbon neutral. There are some parallels between the US drive to reduce the operating cost of its immense carceral estate through energy efficiency, and the cheap thermal insulation provided by flowering peat in Iceland, but connecting prison design to prisoner behaviour is challenging, both at the level of prisoner wellbeing during incarceration, and in determining the effect of prison design (in terms of prisoners’ rehabilitation via green technology) on post-release outcomes.

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