Curious connections… design and punishment at the Tower of London

Basking in evening sunshine and thronged with tourists, the Tower of London looked anything but the forbidding fortress and feared prison that had earned it a fearsome reputation. However, thanks to the Learning team at Historic Royal Palaces, one floor up from the jewel room, a fascinating discussion evolved from the holding of ransom-worthy prisoners in the Tower – human jewels, if you will, to the architectures of confinement that characterise contemporary incarceration.

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Sally Dixon-Smith, Curator for Historic Royal Palaces at the Tower of London, opened discussion with a talk about the history of the Tower as a prison. Although not its original purpose, the Tower was pressed into service to hold up to 10,000 prisoners over hundreds of years. High-profile prisoners famously included Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth I. Sally explained that although the Tower had a fearsome reputation, prisoners could, depending on their status, expect to be accommodation in some style, with family accompanying them, and with right to hunt in the vicinity as long as a hostage was left in their place. Despite the grand surroundings, the Tower as a prison remained a place intended for the deprivation of liberty.

Following on from Sally, I was invited to speak about my research in carceral geography – how and why prisons come to be as they are, how they are experienced by those who live and work in them, and what the implications of this are for how prison systems are managed, and what they are trying to achieve. My own work has focussed on carceral spaces in very different contexts – from Russia where prisoners inhabit communal living spaces in Soviet-era buildings constructed as part of the Stalinist Gulag; to hi-tech Scandinavian prisons which are considered the most ‘humane’ carceral environments, to both new and old prisons in the UK. In each case I’m interested in the message they were intended to convey about the purpose of prison in the eyes of the imprisoning state, and the ways in which that message is conveyed to prisoners, prison staff, and the community – both locally and nationally.

Of course this changes over time, and so do prisons – and that’s why talking about these things at the Tower of London was so interesting – in a place which has changed so much through the centuries, but which is perhaps most famous for those who have been imprisoned within these walls, and indeed who sometimes met a grisly end close by.

At the time that the Tower was a prison, imprisonment as we know it today didn’t really happen – in the 16th and 17th centuries prisons were mainly places to hold people until some other form of punishment could be meted out to them. Today, prisons are considered places where people go as punishment, not for further punishment – although this is always a contentious issue in terms of what it is that prisons are supposed to achieve. There is a balance to be struck between punishment and In the run-up to the UK general election, this was a timely debate to organise.

Just as the role of imprisonment changes over time, of course it also varies from place to place – what was thought appropriate in the Soviet Union may not suit Scandinavia, or the UK. Prison systems as they exist in bricks and mortar – or stone – or steel and glass, reflect both the current philosophy of imprisonment of the ruling administration, AND the previous philosophies that were manifest in built form in the past – relics, if you will, of those ideas.

So in the UK we have Victorian prisons still operational, alongside 21st century buildings, and of course we have other buildings, like the Tower, which were pressed into service as prisons having been initially intended for some other purpose, and when these buildings come to the end of their use as prisons, they could be used for something else again. All of these buildings, and the people affected by them, have a story to tell.

That’s what I’m interested in. In a current research project, we’re looking at the processes of designing and building new prisons in the UK and Scandinavia, asking questions about how new prisons come to be as they are, why we build what we do, and how the purpose of imprisonment, conceived of within a particular political context, is translated into buildings.

We’re also asking questions about how those buildings are experienced by those who live and work in them. What does a humane prison look like? Does the building itself matter for punishment or rehabilitation? What does a therapeutic building look like? Is colour important? What about views from windows? What do we know about the ways in which people are affected by the environment in which they live? Are new prisons necessarily better than old ones? What should modern prisons look like? Who is the audience for them?

Of course prison design is about much more than just how the prison looks from the outside. There are also thorny questions about how prison architecture affects the ways in which prisons can be managed. How levels of staffing can be changed, how certain issues can be managed through the environment itself as well as through human interaction. Where prisoners spend many hours a day confined to cells, consideration is given to ways to reduce the opportunity for prisoners to harm themselves or others, removing ligature points or potential weapons.

Underpinning this research are the very same questions that shaped the debate as a whole. What is it that a prison is fundamentally trying to achieve? How might it do that through its built form? What difference does design make to achieving those outcomes? And are the prisons that we have now, and that we will have in the future, going to be effective at delivering the outcomes we want? Of course these questions go far beyond prison design – they touch on issues of public opinion, rhetoric, media campaigns and electioneering. But they are critically important questions.

The final speaker was Christopher Liddle, Chairman of HLM Architects who have been at the forefront of custodial and justice design for more than 14 years. Chris spoke passionately about the challenges of designing effective carceral environments – ones which maintain security and safety for prisoners and staff, and which also help facilitate the rehabilitation that contributes to reducing reoffending for prisoners after release. His message was that prison buildings matter very much for the outcomes that we want prisons and prisoners to have, and that through incorporating natural daylight, fresh air, views of outside spaces, especially higher-floor views over prison walls, the environment of prisons can be moulded to improve prisoner outcomes.

Facilitated by freelance historian Lauren Johnson a large audience within the Tower posed some pertinent questions about the ability of the modern penal estate to cater for deaf prisoners; the architecture of open prisons and the ways in which this facilitates reintegration into the community; the challenges of managing long-term prisoners, and the political context for the commissioning and the designing of new prisons in the UK.

Discussion was curtailed by the Ceremony of the Keys, the traditional locking up of the Tower of London which has taken place on each and every night for at least 700 years, to protect the Crown Jewels. Prisoners are no longer held at this former royal palace, and despite the pressure on the UK prison system, neither speakers nor audience members wished to revisit the Tower as a prison…

New ESRC Research Project: Breaking the Cycle? Prison Visitation and Recidivism in the UK

The ESRC intends to fund a new research project entitled ‘Breaking the Cycle? Prison Visitation and Recidivism in the UK’, to be undertaken by carceral geographer  Dominique Moran and criminological psychologist Louise Dixon, both at the University of Birmingham, UK.

This 3-year interdisciplinary project will provide a new perspective on prison visitation and its relationship to the highly topical issue of recidivism. Macro-level statistical analysis in parallel with innovative mixed-methods research into visiting facilities will identify the nature of this relationship and its socio-spatial context, informing policy towards visitation and the design of visiting spaces, and contributing to broader debates about prisoner rehabilitation and resettlement.

In the aftermath of the 2011 UK riots, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke described the rioters as a ‘feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream’, and blamed the riots on the ‘broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful’. Reoffending or recidivism is key to the operation of the repetitive cycle of incarceration, re-entry, re-offending and re-incarceration, and represents a major policy challenge. In the UK, 75% of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release, and 39.3% within the first twelve months. Clarke’s solution as set out in the government’s “Breaking the Cycle” Green Paper is ‘payment by results’; a ‘radical and decentralising reform’ with ‘freedom to innovate’ new interventions, opening ‘the market to new providers from the private, voluntary and community sectors’. This project draws attention to prison visitation as an aspect of imprisonment which has already been demonstrated to improve the outcomes of released prisoners, but whose specific functionality is at present poorly understood. Through parallel methodologies, this project investigates the relationship between visitation and recidivism.

Research into recidivism finds that prison visitation is a significant factor in improving post-release outcomes; outcomes are in general much more positive for visited prisoners, and lower recidivism rates have been demonstrated across study populations and time periods. However, although the effect is widely observed, the causality is poorly understood. It is presumed that the maintenance of personal relationships and the feeling of ‘connectedness’ to home and community which may arise through visitation smooth reintegration after release, but this process has never been fully explored. The processes underlying persistent criminal careers remain a research gap, and very little is known about psychological change in relation to prison visits in terms of the psychological constructs which may mediate the relationship between visits and recidivism.

The project will generate both nuanced insights into the relationship between prison visitation and recidivism, and also critical insights into the socio-spatial context of prison visiting, to inform visitation policy and the design of more effective prison visiting spaces. It seizes an opportunity to influence policy and create impact, at a time when the the coalition government is consulting on policy reform, in particular in relation to recidivism. It represents convergence of cutting-edge debates in cognate disciplines of human geography, criminology, psychology and wider social theory, and resonates with policy development in individual prison institutions in the UK in the context of the ‘Breaking the Cycle’ initiative.

There will be a 2.5-year Post-Doctoral Research Assistant position created at the University of Birmingham in connection with this grant; post to be advertised in due course. For any further information please contact d.moran@bham.ac.uk

Father’s Day at San Quentin – images of prison parenting

Many thanks to Shaul Cohen for the link to this photo montage of Father’s Day visits to San Quentin, California, US. The website details the annual Father’s Day event, “Get On The Bus” which brings children in California to visit their fathers in prison. According to The Center for Restorative Justice Works, the non-profit organization that runs the “Get on the Bus” programme, 60% of parents in state prison report being held over 100 miles (161 km) from their children. Regular prison visits seem to lower rates of recidivism for the parent, and also have benefits for the children in maintaining a relationship with their parents.

What struck me most about the montage, which includes images of children riding the bus, of parents and children reconnecting, and of fathers doing facepainting with their children, was these two images, of children wearing the purple t-shirts of the “Get on the Bus” programme, having their photos taken with their fathers, wearing prison-issue blue. In the visiting space there’s a backdrop of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and the smiling snapshots are taken in front of it. From the images it seems that the Golden Gate is not the only backdrop option, but its the one they’ve chosen for these images, or perhaps just the one that happened to be on offer on the day.

I’m intrigued about the role of this backdrop for the fathers and their children, and why they chose to have their photos taken in front of it.

Maybe the backdrop is just decorative – more decorative than the beige walls of the visiting space. Maybe it’s just conventional that a backdrop like this is used, like in a photographer’s portrait studio. Or maybe it’s there so that children showing these treasured images to their friends don’t need to explain where they were, or what was going on – although one might anticipate that the backdrop would raise more questions than it obscures.

The backdrop image itself intrigues me too – by using a famous California landmark, there’s a reconnection to the locality, the state, and to the landscape that is familiar to the children and families on the outside. These images look almost like holiday snapshots – families on a day trip having their photo taken in front of the Golden Gate bridge. There’s an element of enactment here, heightened by the ‘stageset’ of the painted backdrop.

It’s a small detail, but perhaps a significant one in terms of understanding what goes on during prison visiting, and the ‘performances’ that are undertaken by both visitors and visited, especially when families are far apart, visits are few and far between, and everyone wants the visit to go well. It also gives a tantalising insight into what happens after the visits are over, and the importance of visual records of the visits themselves, both for parents and children, in terms of the maintenance of a narrative of parenting and family, when a parent is incarcerated.

The relationships between visiting and reduced recidivism, and visiting and children’s well being, have been observed in a range of contexts, but perhaps it is attention to details such as this, seemingly trivial issue of family photographs, that is key to understanding how these things are related to each other, and to enhancing these positive effects of visitation.

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.