Prisons present an interesting design problem of architecture for containment, one which is forced on its users and can severely affect their mental well-being. A small cramped space with barely any natural light, a rickety bed, and massive plain walls instigating claustrophobia is what comes to mind when we think of prisons. 

This idea of constraining people came about in the early Catholic era, as the church frowned upon the punishment of death penalties for offenders, and a place for restraining people until they could be pardoned lead to the birth of prisons. They were initially designed as monasteries with cells resembling ‘house of penitents’, where people could reflect on their actions until they gained mercy from god.

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Inmates sleep inside their cell in San Pedro Sula central corrections facility, Honduras. Photograph, _©Rodrigo Abd/AP,
  1. The Panopticon

Prison reform activist Jeremy Bentham came up with the concept for a prison called the Panopticon in the 1700s, a circular establishment with the cells placed at the periphery and a central surveillance core to keep an eye on the prisoners. It was a notorious expression of power and hierarchy condemning the inmates to be under constant supervision without them knowing when they were being observed which was thought to instill a sense of self-discipline amongst them. 

Bentham described this facility as a “new model for obtaining power of mind over mind”, which ironically feels like something Big Brother from the famous dystopian novel 1984 (by George Orwell) would say. A French rendition of this model was carried out wherein the central tower was replaced by a slab at a mezzanine level from where the guards could observe the activities of the inmates.

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The Architecture of Surveillance -Panopticon Prison- France. Image _©   Romain Veillon

However, contemporary prisons are in the process of being remodeled as correction and rehabilitation facilities that are sensitive and take into consideration the fragile mental state of their users. Design solutions with various facilities for the inhabitants to feel comfortable and learn life skills while developing social discipline so that they can rejoin society are being researched and amplified across developing countries. 

When the famous modernist architect, Frank Gehry took up a spring semester at Yale in 2017 he encouraged students to re-imagine prisons as a place for introspection and healing rather than a space out-casted from the city for punishment. The students came up with radical ideas for a utopian institution that resembled a school or a college with ample amount of open spaces and freedom of movement which lies in contrast with the strictly controlled circulation in modern-day prisons set up from the point of view of security. 

Although the ideas were deemed as abstract, an important takeaway was that instead of looking at prisons as mere mass incarceration centers, they were now being reformed and uplifted to spaces that could help their users to improve, grow and lead a better life eventually.

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Frank Gehry and a student model from one of his studios on prison design _©  Frank Gehry: Building Justice

Prison design is an important field that demands attention and research from architects so that therapeutic design considerations based on trauma navigation can be set up which are restorative and not detrimental to the health of their inmates. It is important to create humane settings where the environment helps in stabilization and recovery. Spaces that can cause psychological distress should be avoided like narrow corridors with little light, blind spots can be replaced by predictable and easy-to-understand spaces which provide privacy but don’t instigate fear. 

Spaces that allow for staff-inmate conversations and interactions can be planned which will not only help the prisoners feel connected to the real world but in turn, would also create a more friendly atmosphere for the staff which would help in reducing their stress as well. Adding aspects of a natural setting can help in influencing positive behavior, small courtyards, recreational spaces, etc., help in creating a therapeutic environment.  

  1. Storstrøm Prison by C.F. Møller
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Storstrøm Prison / C.F. Møller, Photograph _©Torben Eskerod

The Storstrøm Prison by the Danish Prison and Probation Service architecture firm CF Møller was envisioned as a modern-day rendition of a rehabilitation facility with maximum security. It is located 70 miles out of Copenhagen and is designed as a university campus, with individual rooms instead of cells equipped with a bed, desk, and private bathroom set in an old Danish village-like setting with open courtyards and gardens. Instead of a mess, communal kitchens are shared amongst seven to eight users which breaks down the image of the facility being a confined institution. 

The site planning was done so that the inhabitants don’t lose touch with normal routine, with paved streets connecting structures where workshops are held, along with a grocery store, a library, parks, visitor’s center, and a church.

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Storstrøm Prison / C.F. Møller, Photograph _©Torben Eskerod

Architects while designing prisons, more euphemistically correction centers partially shoulder the responsibility of creating spaces that can have a positive impact on the life of its users. They can be redeemed from the status of ‘prisoners’ and instead become ‘learners’ in well-designed fully equipped rehabilitation centers. It would be naïve to expect architecture to completely turn an individual around but good architecture can surely lend a helping hand in improving the lives of inmates by not isolating them from society, instead can try to reinvigorate in them the lost humaneness.



Kriti Khandelwal is an inquisitive bibliophile who is currently a fourth year student pursuing her Bachelor's in Architecture from Nirma University, Ahmedabad.She has an ardent interest in art, exploring new places and is always in pursuit of stories of different people and cultures brewing around her.

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