A sticking plaster on a failing prison system?

We need innovative design and the end of prison as we know it, argues Richard Rowley

By: 
Richard Rowley
Date: 
Friday, 24 March, 2017

Wind the clock back 15 years to the Social Exclusion Unit report, Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners. In there you will find a very bold statement by the Prime Minister: 'We need to make sure that a prison sentence punishes the offender, but also provides the maximum opportunity for reducing the likelihood of re-offending. That means we need to redouble efforts to rehabilitate prisoners back into society effectively.'

Sound familiar? The similarities between issues at the time of that report and what the prison system is currently facing I have discussed many times. I do that to make a simple point – we need to think differently.

Opportunity for change

Whilst the introduction of the new Prison and Courts Bill is welcomed, I wonder whether we are simply masking the situation and missing real opportunities for change.

Social media is awash with commentary and opinions on whether the Bill goes deep enough into ‘fixing the prison crisis’. Perhaps there is a need to consider the very purpose of prisons and to explore what their role in society could and should be.

The Free Prisoner, by Karl Lenton and Claire Shepherd, does just that. Exploring both the physical design of prisons and the purpose we want from them, they highlight the mentally and emotionally repressive nature of prison as institutions, where people are removed from society and from the networks and a purpose in life that we know supports people to desist from crime.

Some may argue this is the whole purpose of prison, with punishment as the key driver. But at some point these men and women will be released back into their communities, into our communities.

Currently there is a tide of change in public opinion. As Lenton and Shepherd point out, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that we are beginning to prefer putting resources toward rehabilitative than punitive crime policies.

Prison design has changed little in the last 200 years and could be referred to as ‘anti-therapeutic’. It presents unique challenges for prisoners and prison staff.

The Free Prisoner questions this reliance on the warehousing of people in these institutions and challenges us to think differently about the concept of prison, how we use it and what it could look like.

According to Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust:

[The Free Prisoners is] a useful and very thoughtful contribution to a debate that isn't happening in public to the extent that it should be. Planning the prison estate – what it's for, where it is and what it looks like – should be a matter of open public discussion and consultation. Too much of that discussion is happening behind closed doors in government – your paper shows how much there is to gain by opening those doors.

Presumably few would disagree that the system is in need of change. It seems to be the degree of change that divides opinions. Whilst some of the intentions of the Secretary of State are necessary and will improve the situation over time, I can’t help thinking that we need to take more risks and think outside the box.

Innovation is often used in the ‘rhetoric’ we hear but rarely acted upon. However, the Prison Safety and Reform paper states that ‘radical reform will unlock innovation, enhance accountability and improve outcomes’. We wait to see the reality of this as it unfolds.

Engaging ‘our’ communities

Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, is touting widespread reform but barely references the role of communities in recent publications. A brief mention in the Prison Safety and Reform paper states: ‘just as importantly, we will work to change the culture of local communities so that they accept and employ ex-offenders.’

Whilst this is positive, it is an incredibly small step in engaging with our communities when we have the potential to do so much more.

The Free Prisoner model of Community Generation Hubs for all but the most dangerous offenders, would see prisoners placed in the heart of their communities to add value, rehabilitate, integrate and ultimately reduce recidivism.

Couched in principles of restorative justice, regeneration of communities, the model aligns offender management to the needs and rehabilitative function of families and local social structures.

By devolving and pooling budgets to local control, the model brings benefit to the whole community and reduces the need for ‘prison’ as we know it. Radical it may be, but the prison population has seen an increase of almost 55 percent in the last 20 years with little impact on reoffending rates. It could be argued that change needs to happen.

Prisons of the future 

HMP Berwyn opened this month in Wrexham, promising a welcoming environment with an innovative Governor determined to build a rehabilitative culture.

However, if we really are to embrace innovation and make real change, perhaps the investment of £1.3bn for new prison builds is an opportunity for the government to steer away from the norm and design prisons and systems from evidence of what works to reduces offending, even if it challenges us all ethically, culturally and politically.

I’m not saying The Free Prisoner model is a silver bullet, but we should explore alternatives to the system that currently presents us with the consistent ‘revolving door’ scenario.


Richard Rowley is the Business Development and Relationship Manager for SAFE Innovations, a company of people who utilise design to enable positive change and improve lives. The team understand the way that environments and space impact on people and how good design can transform people’s experience and outcomes.