Behind the Bars

Will Alsop rethinks prisons—with the help of the inmates.

Prison design is about as unglamorous as architecture can get. Corrections agencies want the cheapest cage they can buy; communities want the monstrosities out of sight. Innovation has typically meant anything that will cut costs—for instance, casting an entire prefabricated cell, from the bed frame to the toilet, as a single piece of low-grade concrete. But when British nonprofit Rideout (Creative Arts for Rehabilitation) approached the architect Will Alsop about designing a concept prison—from the inside out—he jumped at the chance. If prisons are meant to make troubled men and women into citizens, he wondered, might there be a social cost to bad prison design?

On Alsop’s first trip behind bars, he passed around wide sheets of butcher paper to a group of inmates, all of them in for at least 15 years, and asked them to draw a new prison cell. What happened next shocked him: they drew the cells they had. A decade or more of life in prison made it difficult to imagine any change in space or routine. “They said, It would be too expensive to give us more space,” Alsop recalls. “Perhaps it’s more expensive for society not to give you a larger space,” he responded. Eventually Alsop scrapped the idea of floor plans and asked them instead to draw the view from an imaginary cell. All at once the men began to draw gardens. In prison, they explained, there is time to watch things grow. Incarceration had not simply rewired their ideas about space, Alsop realized, it had also warped their sense of time.

As he spent more time with the men, Alsop began to feel that prison was molding them to prison life, not the life they would one day lead beyond the prison walls. It was conditioning them to live like animals. Design could do something about that, he thought—and without turning cell blocks into boutique hotels.

Instead of a traditional sprawling plan, he imagined the blocks as narrow towers, which would free up space for working gardens, where inmates could get job training. The inmates were also interested in construction and food service, so Alsop set aside space on the grounds for building sites and added a restaurant, a low-power radio station, and a barber shop.

As Alsop facilitated, the men found they had more and more to say. Exposed toilets were dehumanizing, they argued (and the guards agreed). Many of them had families who traveled long distances to visit, but they had nowhere to stay. Inmates wished they could lock their own cell doors—not from guards but from other inmates. Alsop suggested doors that lock from the inside and a small prison hotel, and pondered ways to give prisoners more privacy in the john without compromising security. “This is the way all things should be designed,” he explains. “It’s not about me being some maestro architect and saying whatever I’ve designed is good for you.”

Most radically he abandoned massive cell blocks, replacing them with units to house no more than 14 prisoners, which he believes could encourage a sense of community. While the final product is just a design study—on display beginning in September at the National Centre for Citizenship & Law Galleries of Justice, in Nottingham—British prison officials have already approached Alsop and Rideout for further thoughts on the idea. “We haven’t developed the design to any great level of detail,” Alsop says. “But I can see that, were we to build it, I’d be very proud of it as a piece of architecture.”

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