When most Australians think of a prison environment, the Intensive Learning Centre facility in the medium security Mid North Coast Centre at Kempsey is not what they imagine.

Designed to provide more of a residential feel compared with that of a punitive environment, the facility features four classrooms filled with natural light, a library, an amenity area, a staff office and modern landscaped gardens.

The classrooms are flexible and can be adapted in size to suit the activity in question. Features include integrated technology like smartboards, laptops and audio visual equipment; interlinked indoor and outdoor spaces; and specially designed spaces that support Aboriginal learning pedagogies and cross-cultural discussions. Interchangeable art panels enable cohorts of students to build ownership and connection with their environment.

Prior to being shifted to Kempsey, classroom modules and furniture were in fact built by inmates in the building and construction program at St Heliers Correctional Centre some 370 kilometres away in Muswellbrook.

Thus far, the results have been positive – 80 per cent of the students within the first two cohorts who undertook education programs through the centre graduated with a nationally recognised qualification. This compares to an average of around 30 per cent for those who undertake learning programs within correctional environments generally. Moreover, 72 per cent of students reported that the centre’s design made it easier for them to learn and 80 per cent of teachers said the design made teaching easier.

This is one example of an increasing number of initiatives which aim to transform environments within correctional facilities from those which reinforce negative mindsets to those which are more uplifting and conducive to rehabilitation. In Norway, Haldon Prison holds around 250 prisoners and features wraparound sofas, birch coffee tables, state of the art lighting, wall-mounted televisions, stainless steel kitchen fittings and long, vertical windows without any bars. In Western Australia, meanwhile, the West Kimberly Regional Prison was designed around aboriginal themes to promote a sense of cultural safety and features cabin style accommodation and vegetation and trees.

Anecdotal evidence suggests this is working. Just 20 per cent of prisoners leaving jail in Norway recorded a further criminal conviction within the next two years according to a table contained in a review of recidivism rates worldwide prepared by University of Oxford researchers Seena Fazel and Achim Wolf. In the United States and United Kingdom – both known for their more institutionalised forms of prison design – the equivalent proportions were 36 per cent and 59 per cent respectively.

This raises important questions about whether or not more uplifting correctional facility design can improve chances of prisoner rehabilitation.

Across Australia, ABS statistics indicate that the number of prisoners in adult corrective services custody stood at 36,134 as at June 2015 – an increase of almost half over the past 10 years. Nationally, this year’s Report on Government Services indicates that almost half (44.3 per cent) of all prisoners who left prison in 2012/13 returned to prison within two years, whilst more than half (51.1 per cent) returned to corrective services over that time frame.

Whilst the success of rehabilitative effort will obviously depend upon the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs at an operational level, an emerging consensus suggests that environments which are more uplifting and relaxing have a positive psychological impact upon prisoners and staff and are thus likely to improve rehabilitative outcomes.

Dr Rohan Lulham, a fellow at the Designing Out Crime Research Centre, whose research covers areas of design, environmental psychology and criminology, said that whilst modern day prisons do not embody the extent of punishment associated with some of the facilities constructed in the past, a number of those in the US nowadays are quite bland in design and heavily focused around security. Several in New South Wales, meanwhile, have the same colour pink on the outside of the building and the same concrete throughout.

Whilst acknowledging the need to maintain security, Lulham is concerned about the expectations this communicates to inmates.

“A lot of prisons these days are based around the dominant American model which is quite bland and adopts a focus which is very much around minimising opportunities for doing anything wrong,” Lulham said. “I think that expresses values and a philosophy of conservatism and also expresses to the inmate that ‘you’re dangerous’ or ‘people here are dangerous.’

“I think the potential for architecture done well is to maintain that safety but also provide an environment that still connects them (prisoners) with their community and is not a totally foreign environment.”

NBRSARCHITECTURE director Rodney Drayton agrees.

“If you can create an environment that is responsive and enables a prisoner to be open and in a mindset such that they are able to receive health or criminogenic program treatment or benefit from education or vocational training, that’s ultimately going to lead to a better rehabilitative outcome,” Drayton said.

In terms of effective strategies, Drayton says differences across jurisdictions, cohorts and operational environments make the determination of evidence based outcomes across correctional facilities from a common baseline difficult. Nevertheless, he says lessons can be taken from the healthcare environment, where he says post-operative patients who are situated on the side of the hospital which receives most natural light as an example have been shown to experience lower levels of pain and stress compared with their counterparts situated on the opposite side.

Extrapolating that to a prison environment, where mental or physical health issues can be more concentrated, Drayton says effective design strategies can look at ways to maximise natural light as well as privacy and acoustic performance. Notwithstanding the need for the environment to be restrictive, he says it is also useful to look at ways in which prisoners could be given some degree of empowerment and control over their surroundings.

Finally, Drayton says physical prison environments should be flexible so as to enable maximum levels of adaptability with regard the type of rehabilitative programs which can be run over the life of the facility and the period of some individual prisoners’ incarceration.

Asked about managing the duel need to create spaces which are conducive to rehabilitation but which also deliver upon appropriate levels of security, Drayton says it is important to look at different areas within the prison and to adapt design strategies to the needs and activities within that given area. It can be useful, he says, to look at the structured day of each prisoner, including where they are typically going to be at what time of day and to then target opportunities for the more rehabilitative space accordingly.

Whilst prisoners necessarily spend a lot of time in accommodation space, this is often a space where they are going to and from more rehabilitative opportunities, and trade-offs could be made between this and other areas such as programs or industry areas where maximum benefit outcomes can be primarily targeted. It should also be noted that technology is expanding the ability of inmates to learn and interact with each other, in some cases through a prison’s internal secure Wi-Fi network, from any space within the secure perimeter. Design strategies, Drayton says, must respond to this and encourage meaningful interaction and dialogue to happen where possible.

Finally, Drayton says one interesting area of challenge can occur in the case of facilities aimed at youth and young people. The rehabilitative focus of youth justice means that you don’t want to place them in unduly harsh environments, but the lower degree of emotional and behavioural control often associated with this cohort often dictates that the environment indeed has to be slightly more robust compared with that of some adult correctional facilities.

International commentators agree that a relationship between design and rehabilitation cannot be understated. Marayca Lopez, a senior corrections analyst and planner at US-based justice facilities designer RicciGreene Associates says prison architecture broadly falls into two categories.

First, an architecture of ‘hope’ is characterised by spatial arrangements which promote empowerment and evoke sentiments of optimism and trust. Second, an architecture of ‘repression’ is characterised by environments which embody isolation, restriction and suspicion. Whereas the latter environment magnifies sentiments of anger and despair, she says the former promotes senses of openness, safety and security and is conducive to more positive attitudes and better behaviour.

Finally, interesting questions surround social and political attitudes in this area. Some no doubt believe funds expended on effective design of correctional facilitates would be better used elsewhere and/or that inmates serving time are in fact not worthy of good design. Others, meanwhile, feel prison should represent a place of ‘punishment’ and that the provision of facilities which are too comfortable are either unjust for someone who is there as a result of criminal activity or are in fact counterproductive in terms of actually diminishing the deterrent value associated with jail time.

Drayton says such feelings should be acknowledged and that there is indeed a need to balance the nature of the facility so as to not undermine its deterrent impact yet still maximise the likelihood of positive rehabilitation outcomes. Indeed, when working in Western Australia, feedback he received was that some indigenous elders specifically did not want facilities to be too comfortable lest their design add to perceptions about jail time being a ‘normal’ step along the way of life for young indigenous people.

Partially, he says this can be managed across the portfolio of corrective service assets, with some prioritising a more restrictive or perceived punitive environment, but the design of others allowing a greater focus upon rehabilitation through a normalisation approach.

Lulham, on the other hand, says some of the thinking in this area is misguided. Punishment relating to prison should revolve around the taking of people’s liberty rather than the actual facility itself forming part of the punishment, he said. Besides, he argues, any beliefs about an unduly harsh environment serving as a deterrent to reoffending was not supported by evidence.

“I think there is a community attitude that the prison itself should punish and that in some ways the (prison) environment itself should make people suffer in addition to being separated (from society),” he said.

“(But,) all of the international guidelines around this area suggest that the punishment is the taking of a person’s liberty and that the environment should not in any way punish or detract from the experience in itself.”

image: University of Technology, Sydney