High walls like a fortress with thorny spikes winding its way throughout harsh and sharp lights from the watchtowers above along with the constant gaze.

Rethinking the Architecture of Prisons-Typical Prison -1
Typical Prison ©CNN
Rethinking the Architecture of Prisons-Typical Prison -2
Typical Prison ©The Marshall Project
Rethinking the Architecture of Prisons-Typical Prison -3
Typical Prison ©Newshub

Creepy corridors hardly wide enough for three, lined with cells entered by an iron cladded gate. Hard interiors with rough finish intended to take in any form of abuse or torture.

The dark cells smelling musty and sweaty may have a small peephole wide enough to fit one eye.

The inmates, isolated and forced to spend most of their time alone and indoors.

This is the most common description of prison we all have read about in The Count of Monte Carlo. Probably because this was the most rudimentary prototype followed for mass incarceration.

The light color palette, soft interiors with plenty of sunlight streaming in. Residential scale buildings categorized into zones with courtyards in between. The courtyards are used for activities and supervised interactions. The cafeteria opens to the open promenade and walking path. The whole campus resembles an educational campus designed to promote the personal, spiritual, and vocational growth of the inmates. The interiors use soft materials like wood and cork in order to provide better acoustics. The increased amount of light inside along with the softer color palette has shown a reduction in stress, anxiety, and anger. This is the Las Colinas Women’s Detention and Re-entry Facility, commissioned by the County of San Diego, designed by KMD/HMC Architects.

Rethinking the Architecture of Prisons-Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility -1
Las Colinas Women’s Detention ©Landlab
Rethinking the Architecture of Prisons-Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility -2
Las Colinas Women’s Detention ©HMC Architects
Rethinking the Architecture of Prisons-Las Colinas Women's Detention Facility -3
Las Colinas Women’s Detention ©HMC Architects

As time has changed, mindsets have changed, and the most primitive building typology requires a drastic change.

A studio conducted by Frank Gehry at Yale- Long studio on Architecture and mass incarceration, studied in detail on correctional facilities. The studio designed and produced miniature models of multiple options for correctional facilities. The jury panel involved many friends of Frank Gehry, one among them was Elizabeth Glazer, director of New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal justice. Glazer spoke about the students’ project looking at prisons as a ‘Civic Asset’ rather than a liability the city needed to hide behind landscape.

“In my view, the design is crucial for creating an environment in which prisoners can live and not become institutionalized. This means providing spaces for staying in contact with families, work, education, and playing sport”, said Prison expert Isabel Hight.

Prisons are institutions meant to help the people who’ve strayed away from humanity to re-enter human society as a Good Samaritan. The current model of prisons is based on the correctional facilities used by the English forces, absolutely outdated. Prisons should be designed to inspire, motivate, and provide stability to their inmates. The design of the prison plays a crucial role in the emotions and mental conditions of the person staying in.

Isabel Hight speaks of prisons locally rooted and incorporating the local culture.

  1. Local roots: The architecture must be in relation and complement the context. This helps in creating a sense of calm and helps them identify with the surrounding.
  2. Local culture inculcation: The design of the communal spaces and cafeteria should ideally follow the local customs and traditions to help the inmates get back in track to regular life, as part of the society.

Norway’s Halden Prison is designed as a humane prison. The campus-like plan trumps the usual plans of a large central courtyard, long tube, or radial plan. The existing typologies are designed for the value of money and easy movement of the inmates but are found to agitate the inmates and an increased rate of violence. The plans also only provide views of the facility within and not the exterior landscape. Humane prison ensures an excellent view overlooking the surrounding landscape. The exterior view allows the inmates to keep track of the time, season, and space. The trees are selectively planted in order to block the view of the perimeter security wall. The communal spaces and cafeteria are designed to increase the interactions between the guards and inmates, a strategic move to reduce the number of violent attacks within the prison. The functions are divided into various blocks- housing, administration, and visiting. The inmate has forced a commute like in real life to move from one place to another. The landscape elements around the blocks create the break spaces to help the inmates relax and calm down.

The contemporary idea of the design of prison looks at helping a person get inspired and become a better civilian. The punishment is the sentence they’ve received and not the architecture of the prison.


Anamika Mathew is a stubborn influencer. She’s sort of like a Caesar salad – a little of this and a little of that. She is highly dramatic and loves putting the people around her in a pickle. Her passions include self-exploration and adrenaline activities. She requires to talk for at least 12 hours a day. Oh! And she is also a final year architecture student.