So far, the pandemic’s impact wasn’t only on our daily routine and how we live but also on the places we live in. Whether on the urban scale or home scale, the pandemic reshaped our architecture. It forced the accessibility, gatherings, and work environment to change to reduce infection. We might be over the lethal impact, but those habits are already engraved in us and we started to plan ahead solutions in case we face another wave. If we look at our needs starting from basics: to minimise the chances of getting the virus, we were supposed to put a distance between each other and make protection barriers like wearing the mask. So architectural speaking, we needed larger spaces and more ventilation, and we added plexiglass walls to create a defensive space replacing the airy pristine, and emptiness of the usual areas. “Being trapped inside our little cells”
When it comes to the defensive sector, prisons prioritise that aspect. It is already an architecture consisting of cells, but not all are solitary; the dining and gathering areas, in general, aren’t that spacious either. And through the pandemic wave, it was a struggle to maintain the prisoners’ health. Everybody was on top of each other, and hygiene quality in prisons isn’t quietly sanitary. A lockdown under a lockdown.
One of the first inclinations in prison spaces is to restrict visitation, institute lockdowns, and increase solitary confinement. Still, these actions can not only aggravate major physical and mental health conditions but also have not been proven to be effective in the fight against contagion. No evidence that increased time in individual cells slows the transmission of the virus.
The current reality of the coronavirus pandemic puts many of us in a challenging position. While the primary effort should focus on rapid decarceration to address both the immediate need for contagion control and the larger problem of mass incarceration, the vast majority of incarcerated people will remain in detention through this public health crisis.
MASS Design Group founded ten years ago in response to an epidemic disease – extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis – whose airborne transmission was exacerbated by spatial conditions of hospital wards and waiting areas. Over the past decade, they have partnered with organisations working on the frontlines of the world’s major health challenges, from responding to acute epidemics of Ebola in Liberia and cholera in Haiti to addressing the chronic injustices of structural health inequities in the US and around the world. This Group made suggestions on how to manage better for further pandemics.
Make space for each person’s safety:
- Depopulate to reduce density and make other interventions more effective.
- Convert double- and triple-bunked cells into single rooms or program spaces.
- Rearrange rooms to accommodate more space between people, and use physical partitions where necessary
Make your spaces breathe better:
- Use air cleansing strategies, such as Germicidal Ultraviolet (GUV) air disinfection units, or high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to purify potentially contaminated air.
- Dilute and remove contaminated indoor air by bringing in natural ventilation via open windows or doors.
- Instead of using every cell, aspire to use every other cell so that people do not share adjoining vents.
Sequence flows and segment populations:
- Create a plan to program space intentionally to minimise overlaps and touchpoints between groups of people.
- Where possible, make spaces self-sufficient, for example, by establishing small kitchens/kitchenettes or laundry facilities within housing units.
Reconfigure medical facilities and consider alternatives:
- In medical spaces within prisons, use signage or paint doors to notify individuals when they are transitioning into or out of areas where they may be at high risk of contagion, and locate PPE donning and doffing spaces at the thresholds. •
- Consider repurposing available units or otherwise unused spaces for cases requiring quarantine but not extensive care. Make sure these patients are comfortable and maintain access to programming or the outdoors, where appropriate.
- As much as possible, consider choices for quarantine spaces, including other government or private spaces better suited for the monitoring and care of those diagnosed with COVID-19.
Use design cues to reinforce behaviour change:
- Highlight high-touch surfaces (like door handles, handrails, tabletops, and telephones) with bright-coloured paint, tape, and/or signage.
- Post clear signage to communicate a consistent message and provide updates to staff and residents.
- Use wayfinding clues like paint, tape, or signage to identify spaces thresholds where PPE and/or regular cleaning is necessary, and make hand washing units and/or sanitising stations available at the transition between contaminated and “safe” zones and before other shared spaces.
Design for healing, not for lockdown
- Facilitate access to video visitation and programming via virtual platforms or small class sizes to provide educational and therapeutic opportunities during this time.
- Create space to acknowledge the reality of human emotions during this time and find ways to honour those whose lives have been lost or impacted in the path of the virus. Be sure to consider different cultures or stages of grief and address legacies of terror and trauma, where possible.
- Empower staff and residents to design and define their own spaces, and give them agency as interventions to control contagion are enacted.
- Normalize spaces by introducing softer furniture and plants as well as natural and porous materials (surfaces on which the virus has a shorter lifespan) to create a calmer environment and release tension.
Those condemned in prisons may be criminals, but that doesn’t exclude the fact that they remain human beings with families. Souls are lost in vain in prisons because of unsanitary facilities and crowded cells.
WITF. (2020). Prison design creates ideal environment for coronavirus. [online] Available at: https://www.witf.org/2020/04/17/prison-design-creates-ideal-environment-for-coronavirus/.
Initiative, P.P. (n.d.). New data: The changes in prisons, jails, probation, and parole in the first year of the pandemic. [online] Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2022/01/11/bjs_update/.
HOK. (2020). How COVID-19 Could Impact the Design of Detention and Correctional Facilities. [online] Available at: https://www.hok.com/news/2020-04/how-covid-19-could-impact-the-design-of-detention-and-correctional-facilities/.
Schliehe, A., Philo, C., Carlin, B., Fallon, C. and Penna, G. (2022). Lockdown under lockdown? Pandemic, the carceral and COVID‐19 in British prisons. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi:10.1111/tran.12557.
edit.massdesigngroup.org. (n.d.). Work: Research | MASS Design Group. [online] Available at: https://edit.massdesigngroup.org/research