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.

Prisons and prisoner behaviour – space and affect

“Very little is understood and appreciated of the behavioral influence of environmental factors on prisoners and staff. It would be difficult to find a correctional official, warden, superintendent, or line officer that does not agree that a facility’s architectural design has a corresponding influence on prisoner behavior.” (Austin 2003, 5)

I keep coming back to this passage of text from James Austin’s report for the US Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons, wondering why, and thinking that this is exactly the kind of question that carceral geography is well placed to address.

In today’s Guardian magazine, Amelia Gentleman’s piece on Halden, the world’s ‘most humane prison’ raises this question again, although in an utterly different penal regime – the decarcerative setting of Norway rather than the hyperincarcerative context of the US. One of Norway’s highest security institutions, Halden apparently smells of coffee, cells have flat screen TVs and fluffy towels, and prisoners look out over wooded landscapes within the prison grounds. Doors don’t slam shut and prisoners are out of their cells for most of the day. The prison’s architects were set a challenge of designing a space that was ‘light and positive’, and ‘shouldn’t look like a prison’. The principle, given that in Norway the maximum sentence is 21 years and all prisoners are expected to return to the world outside, was that ‘life behind the walls should be as much like life outside the walls as possible.’ As the prison governor discussed, the spatial context is just as important as the rehabilitative regime:

“Everyone who is imprisoned inside Norwegian prisons will be released… everyone… will go back to society. We look at what kind of neighbour you want to have when they come out. If you stay in a box for a few years, then you are not a good person when you come out… We don’t think about revenge in the Norwegian prison system. We have much more focus on rehabilitation. It is a long time since we had fights between inmates. It is this building that makes softer people.” (my emphasis)

Although governor Are Høidal is as convinced of the effect of the building on prisoners’ behaviour as are the correctional officers in James Austin’s report, little is known about how this effect takes place. Some fascinating work within criminology sheds some light on prison architecture, notably Michael Fiddler’s 2011 papers on the phantasmagoric prison, and the prison’s Gothic shadow, but perhaps of greatest interest to carceral geographers is Philip Hancock and Yvonne Jewkes’s recent paper ‘Architectures of incarceration; The spatial pains of imprisonment’ which calls into question the ‘enlightened humanism’ of new generation prisons like Halden, and identifies some ‘pains of imprisonment’ which arise specifically in these contexts, pointing out that the intentions of architectural design can also be lost in everyday practice. They conclude by raising questions about the future of prison architecture and design, and also ‘for the role and trajectory of… research… and particularly for our need to understand the lived experience of such spaces for all those required to inhabit them’ (p627, my emphasis).

Understanding the lived experience of spaces is, of course, at the heart of geographical enquiry. Space is recognised by geographers as more than the surface where social practices take place. As Adey (2008, 440) argues, ‘specific spatial structures… can work to organise affect to have certain effects’. Designers of spaces consider ‘seductive spatiality’ (Rose et al 2010, 347) or ‘ambient power’ (Allen 2006, 445) through which to direct or shape human behaviour within these spaces. Essentially, geographers understand that space ‘matters’, and can affect the ways people act within it.

Although almost a decade has passed since Austin noted that “There are few, if any, studies that have assessed the impact of prison architecture on prisoner behavior” (2003, 6), perhaps dialogue between criminologists and carceral geographers will go some way towards furthering our understanding of the lived experience of carceral space. And in so doing, carceral geography could address critics of geographies of affect and emotion, who argue that such studies should address more topics of relevance, and that geographers of affect should ‘seek out projects and avenues that offer grounds for critical and political thought at the same time that they open the door for participation in efforts to make positive social and political change’ (Woodward & Lea 2010, 170).