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Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Tuesday, 11 December 2007

What should prisons look like?

Pentonville prison

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

The idea for massive Titan super-prisons to tackle the overcrowding crisis has already caused controversy. But is there any "right" way to design a prison?

Think of a prison and you probably think of a Victorian prison, brooding Gothic gatehouse in dirty stone with a door-within-a-door opening to spit out furtive convicts.

This stereotypical image is one that many prison reformers would like to end. Replacing these monolithic 19th Century structures with smaller, warmer, friendlier local institutions. Less grim, less Victorian.

Three types of prison

And yet the next generation of prisons is to be the Titan, giant super-prisons packed with biometric scanners and other gadgetry. Despite all this new technology, a quick glance at the early plans for the Titans conjure up echoes of their Victorian ancestors.

The principles for these new jails - which will hold 2,500 people - was set out by Lord Carter in his report into the state and future of the prison service in England and Wales.

Dwarfing anything in the current system, a key quality will be "optimal sight lines which would result in better staff utilisation and deliver staff savings".

Such a demand harks back to a crucial crossroads in the development of Britain's prisons at the beginning of the 19th Century.

"To induce... a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary."

This could be a criticism from one of the opponents of Britain's "CCTV society". In fact, it is from French philosopher Michel Foucault's attack on Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a landmark concept in the British prison system.

In the Panopticon every prisoner would feel watched

The Panopticon was to be a prison that gave the inmates the impression they were being watched at all times.

A central observation section shrouded in darkness would be surrounded by a ring-shaped building containing the cells. From the centre, the warder would be able to see into any cell to spot signs of trouble or misbehaviour.

"The basic principle was that you had one all-seeing eye - that all prisoners would be watched at all times of day and night. That was not entirely feasible. It moved to the notion that all prisoners could expect that they might be being watched," says Philip Steadman, architecture professor at UCL's Bartlett School.

What the state would end up with would be a "machine to grind rogues honest" at minimal cost, a model prison for the world to see how to reform the worst criminals.

But practical and political opposition killed Bentham's Panopticon, and instead, Britain had to wait until 1842 for its model prison, Pentonville.

Inspired by the forbidding Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pentonville contained a revolutionary design concept. The prisoners would be held in cells in long galleries, radiating from a central point. This radial design meant while the chief warder standing at the hub of the "radial" could not see into the cells, he could see the patrolling warders that could.

Warder looks down a gallery at Strangeways Prison
Radial prisons allow easy supervision

As well as the new design there was a new system of prison discipline: the "separate system", which was inspired by the morass of sexual immorality, gambling and criminal chatter found in jails such as Newgate.

At Pentonville and other new prisons, every inmate was kept in solitary confinement for most of the day. Communication with others, even tapping pipes, was strictly forbidden.

On visits to the chapel, each prisoner stood in an individual upright box so he remain isolated. Work took the form of walking on a giant treadmill which, in many prisons, served no useful purpose.

Despite the quiet terror of the system, Pentonville, like its descendant the Titan, was designed to contain the very latest technology. There was mechanical ventilation, piped water, and central heating. There was even one primitive toilet to each cell, a feature that was later removed.

The adoption of the radial principle at Pentonville sparked dozens of similar jails in Victorian Britain and abroad. More than 150 years later, Pentonville is still in use and its radial principle is echoed in early blueprints for the new Titan design.

Titan prison design

Roger Outram, a former warder and governor, says the old Victorian designs have advantages in terms of maintaining order over modern modular buildings.

"People are going back to the radial notion. There are a lot of crucial design advantages. You can stand in the centre and see the whole radial at one glance from ground to roof. One man can see everything. The minute you put a corner in you need to put two more members of staff.

"You get a sense of a prison immediately. With one deep breath I can tell exactly what the temperature is. You don't get that with prisons that are modular."

Former Pentonville governor Robert Duncan is sceptical about super-prisons but believes the open plan nature of a Victorian radial jail allows safe contact between prisoners and staff.

"It makes for an intimate atmosphere because it's open plan. Staff felt safe... a whistle was always very effective. You have got good access to the prisoners."

To Leslie Fairweather, architect and author of Prison Architecture, big prisons with Victorian-style galleries are not a good idea.

Viewers of Porridge are familiar with traditional prison layout

"Things have moved on so far. The idea is smaller group prisons with corridors not great open galleries. The ideas of these huge prisons holding vast numbers is absurd."

While the radial template ruled for a century, other shapes have since gained popularity. The construction of Blundeston in Suffolk in 1963 marked the British debut of T-shaped blocks.

And in the 1990s America was again the influence as triangular units were introduced at three new prisons, Lancaster Farms, Doncaster and the high-security Woodhill.

In these triangles, two walls would have two tiers of cells spaced along them, while one wall would be largely glass in order to let in as much light as possible onto a central atrium.

"These triangular designs worked well," says US criminologist Prof Norman Johnston. "They forced the staff to have face-to-face contact. That has a positive effect. It cuts down on rape, it cuts down on trafficking."

Masked prisoner at Pentonville
Prisoners at Pentonville wore masks to stop them recognising each other

But ultimately, Mr Outram argues, what design works best depends on the occupants and the purpose.

"If you are trying to maintain order and limit the amount of staff then a Victorian prison is ideal. If you are looking for privacy and discrete areas then the Victorian model doesn't work," he says.

And exactly what a prison is supposed to achieve is a politically charged question that goes back to Victorian times and beyond.

It is hard to escape the notion that prisons reflect the politics of the times. Newgate was a chaotic expression of a riotous era, Bentham's Panopticon was about the desire to impose rationality, and Pentonville about offering a dose of morality.

And the uniting factor between the 19th Century and the 21st is the need to watch the prison at a reasonable cost. But no design is yet established as the best.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Having worked in three different styles of establishments I have to say the Victorian-style prison was where I felt there was more control of prisoners and a higher level of safety for both staff and prisoners. Confined spaces allow for effective monitoring and control, open spaces allow prisoners more freedom to conduct illicit activities such as drug dealing and bullying due to the lack of supervision that can afforded these areas due to staffing levels.

The Victorian idea was based around safety and control and being able to monitor activities from a central viewpoint and in effect prisons such as Pentonville and Wandsworth were way ahead of their times as model prisons.
Nick, Chippenham UK

The penultimate sentence sums up what the debate should be about. As Foucault shows, the type of prison reflects how society views punishment. If so many people argue that most of the time prison "doesn't work", then we need to ask if we are punishing for revenge or punishing in order to reform. Do we want to make prisoners suffer as a reflection of the suffering they have caused, or do we want them to come out of prison with less chance of committing a crime?
George, UK

Frankly, I think we should forget all the current ideas about making prisons inviting, warm and welcome, and keep the traditional ways. Prison is not a holiday camp, it is not somewhere to enrich a persons life experiences, its there to make them feel worthless, useless and pathetic. Manual labour, boring and physically draining tasks should be utilised. a prison should instill fear into the detainee to the point where they would never consider doing anything wrong ever again for fear of going to prison.
Robert Dabill, Sheffield

I have worked in 3 different prisons, including an open prison. I can say that prison is no holiday camp - it is grim. Many of the inmates are the most damaged in our society and it seems politically simpler to lock them up than deal with the issues. We need to be humane. Prison does not work, many petty offenders do life sentences by instalment. It is a revolving door.We have a huge jail population compared to other European countries; instead of increasing it, we need to look at how many people we jail and why.
JM, Scotland

Prisons should be basic, safe, secure and unwelcoming.
Andrew, Hertfordshire

In 1980 as a young soldier, we were sent to run Franklin prison, Durham, during the prison officers strike.It was brand new, the accommodation was fantastic, the sports facilities, including football pitches, running track and gym, were second to none. I enjoyed my time up there and was devasted to return to inferior accommodation and facilities back at my army barracks. My point being there is something badly the wrong way round here. Build the prisons hard, bleak and punishing, fit for the purpose they were intended for, and build good, decent accommodation fit for our fighting forces (free of council tax) to return to when gruelling tours of duty are complete!
Patrick Cashman, Bingley

Until recently I was on the Independent Monitoring Board for HMP Peterborough. A new prison that has both male and female wings, a mother and baby unit and now has young offenders. The prison is privately run by Kalyx and was designed for about 350 female and 500 male prisoners. This number has had to be increased to around 1000 and some cells that were designed primarily for single occupancy are now doubled up.

The prison is coping with this change but it would not take much for problems to arrise. The staff and inmates are working well together and although this is a new prison is still not a holiday camp as the local media would have you think. The new breed of prisons will give birth to a new breed of problems. Drugs appear in even the best run prisons and building bigger prisons may lead to bigger drugs problems.
Jon Whowell, Ryhall, Rutland, England

What we really need is to build a few dozen 'Titan' prisons and increase sentences for every classification of crime against the person. For example: Stabbing someone should get you an automatic sentance of no less than 15 to 20 Years, with violent assaults being punishable by 5 years (1st Offence) - then 10 and 20 Years for second or third offences. People are sick and tired of lenient sentences and a judicial system that allows offenders to mingle freely among the rest of us in Society and to repeat their anti-social and inhuman behaviour. The prison system should be expanded and utilised to the extent where we can and do take these people out of mainstream society pretty much forever.
Bill Marshall, Glasgow

I agree with George that prison should be about reforming 'bad' people into 'good' and not about sending criminals away to get more skilful at being criminals. However, isn't the debate about bigger prisons addressing the symptoms rather than the cause? If we found a way to sort the drug problem in this country out and found a way to get back some basic respect for authority then surely we could reduce the prison population. A society should be judged on how few prisoners it has - take Iceland for example.
Tim Williams, Wilmslow, Cheshire, England

Prison is a place where people are meant to be punished for breaking the law. They should not have TV, should not have comfy beds and three square meals a day, they should be punished for what they have done. They chose to have their "human rights" withdrawn when they broke the law - whether stealing, assaulting, killing or whatever. Make the prison a terrible place to be - not a holiday camp. On a side issue - get prisoners out to cut down hedges on small side roads, empty bins, clean beaches, use them to do simple jobs and not keep them warm and dry - make them earn their freedom by doing something for the society that they chosen not to be a part of... don't teach them how to break in better, to score drugs - give them a lesson - not a holiday.
Nick Barnes, Douglas - Isle of Man

The prison population in this country is approximately double the prison population of 15 years ago, during which time the total British population has only increased by a tiny fraction. And so the cost of keeping criminals behind bars and maintaining prisons has spiralled since the early 1990s. This means that less money is available to spend on worthwhile functions such as the NHS, education, public transport, social housing and victim support.

More and more people are being imprisoned for non-violent offences, namely those guilty of offences such as failure to pay council tax. These people are clearly no danger to society whatsoever, so it is a total waste of hard-earned taxpayer's money to imprison them. The prison population clearly needs to be reduced. Foreign prisoners should be deported, and prison should be reserved for dangerous criminals only.
Alex Wilkes, Sedgley, West Midlands, England

When the value of prisons are discussed it always seems to be that the effectiveness is measured by the impact that they have on those who have offended. What never seems to be considered is their effectiveness in stopping people offending in the first place. In this regard, it would seem logical that the more uncomfortable they are, the greater the deterrent they become.

It is also necessary to separate the arguments of whether a prison sentence is a correct punishment for specific crimes, from the discussion of how a prison should be constructed and the facitlies provided. They are two separate issues.
Peter Leek, Ipswich

Don't forget another design was the H-blocks. Still used in Magilligan prison, but more widely associated with the Maze. Were any built in England?
Rob, Belfast

Male prisons foster the male macho attitudes which underlie much criminal violence. Paint the prisons pink. Decorate them in as feminine style as possible. Provide only pink uniforms. Not easy to boast, "I'm tough, I can take it. The pink, the baking, the embroidery". The aim is that men will come out gentler than they went in - and there's some evidence that it works.
David Harington, Worcester

Enough of this! It's time to bring back penal colonies. I would suggest establishing them in say, West African nations. Think of the 'benefits'. The worst offenders would be able to assist with - for example - agricultural projects there. The fresh air and fine weather would be beneficial too on both sides. The countries would receive money from the British government to establish the colonies and feed the prisoners. Their families would be able to fly out monthly courtesy of the govt too. All this would still cost less than housing offenders in this country, and the benefits of self-sustained African countries would be enormous.
Michael Spencer, London, England.

The idea that one type of prison can be suitable for all types of prisoner is absurd. Dangerous, violent criminals need tight security and constant surveillance; those incarcerated for minor crimes and non-payment of fines need a more positive regime with the emphasis on training, education and redemption. Most of the latter shouldn't be in high security prisons at all. Making prisons tougher doesn't work - most of those treated that way finish up back inside in short order, at great cost to the taxpayer.
Dave Parker, Bishop's Stortford, UK

I am a serving senior prison officer. I have seldom in 19 years seen many prisoners respond favourably to modern, friendly treatment. (I have seen many take absolute advantage of what they see as a weakness - to exploit.) Naturally, there will always be those for whom prison is a necessary evil, and offers no realistic prospect of rehabilitation, but for some, any removal from normal life means isolation and sometimes unending terror. My opinion is - decent but austere! It must be for the courts to decide for whom the bells toll.
Doug Mummery, County Durham

Prisons are there to punish people who have broken the law not give them a holiday. What kind of punishment is a 'friendly local institution' going to be able to give? Maybe we could just book them into a nice hotel instead as long as they promise to behave.
Tom, Cardiff

I think the Pentonville design which focuses on morality is a positive move. I feel that our society is lacking this in a number of ways. Whatever the final decision about the design is, I believe we need to look into how prisoners spend their time. Working a pointless treadmill is archaic but some kind of physical labour and far less privileges are needed. In my view too many criminals have an easy time in jail. We really need to make it a place that they don't wish to return.
Tori Reynolds, Medway, Kent

I've done time, it isn't nice but you have to live with it, I only did two years but i'm never going to go back again because they are so awful, being treated so badly made me more determined to do good not break the law.
Jay, London

My grandmother was born in Wandsworth Prison in 1894. Her father was a prison officer and in those days the officers lived in flats in the towers at the front gate. Each time a prisoner was condemned to be hanged the prison officers and all their families, including the children, would attend church to pray for his soul. The top of the prisoner's head would just be visible to those in the officers' pews.

In the morning, the prison officers would come out of their flats and descend the stairs two by two. Even their lives were extremely regimented and living in the flats was not overly comfortable. I am certain that today's prison officers would not like to go back to that lifestyle.
Polly, Bedford

As prison officer of 25 years and working in every type of prison I found that the old Victoran prison the safest, there was more contact with inmates and the governor is right you could know what type of day you will have by the feel of the wing
R P Lambert, Evesham WORCS

The layout of the prisions that were built in the 19th century are elaborate, and they are beautiful. But if they could be better them i see no reason why they should not be improved.
Megan, Lincolnshire, England

When dealing with anyone that is a danger to the public you need to isolate them from society to be able to deal with them. Unfortunately prison is used to just isolate them from society for the duration of their sentence. There's very little in the way of reform. The isolation can sometimes help, other times it doesn't help. There is no better way for someone to realise their actions are unacceptable than to meet normal people or victims of such crime. Spending years in the company of other criminals isn't really helpful. A gradual approach would be more helpful. Move offenders into gradually less secure prisons based on them meeting specific criteria. Only when they meet the criteria do they get released.
Giles Jones, Cannock, UK

Working a treadmill in prison... wouldn't that be great for the environment if they were hooked up to a dynamo?
Rodney Higgins, London

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