A Radical New Approach to Prison Design

© Glen Santayana

A recent topic that has been receiving attention among architects is the issue of designing prisons. The increased awareness of the problem has been spearheaded by Raphael Sperry, founder of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, who has been campaigning to have the AIA forbid members from designing execution chambers or solitary confinement units. At the other end of the scale, Deanna VanBuren, a principle of FOURM Design Studio and a member of ADPSR herself, has championed ‘restorative justice’, an approach to the justice system which emphasizes rehabilitation and reconciliation in order to prevent people from re-offending.

Now Glen Santayana, a student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, has used his thesis project to add to this debate, designing PriSchool – a prison which both integrates with a school of criminology and is embedded within the community. Could this radical approach to prison design really be an answer to the stretched prison system in the US (and elsewhere)? Read on after the break to find out more.

© Glen Santayana

The circumstance which makes this unusual design possible – and needed – is the USA’s spiraling prison population. Santayana’s thesis explains how, since the “war on drugs” began in the states in the 1970s, the population of the American prison system has swelled by 500%. 92% of the current prison population is incarcerated on non-violent charges. To make this problem worse, the US has 67% recidivism within 3 years after release.

Model. Image © Glen Santayana

PriSchool is designed precisely for those non-violent offenders who struggle to stay on the right side of the law when released. Situated in a Brooklyn neighborhood surrounded by “million dollar blocks” – city blocks with such high crime that the state is spending over a million dollars a year to incarcerate their residents – the prison/school hybrid rethinks what a prison can achieve, positing it as a place where prisoners and students can learn from each other, and where criminals can be rehabilitated in preparation for their return to society.

Model. Image © Glen Santayana

The complex is split into four buildings, consisting of (from West to East) the school of criminology, the prison itself, a ‘pre-release’ building and a community center. The form of these buildings is warped to show where the functions of each building intertwine, with bridges between them. Prisoners and students get the opportunity to take part in lessons together, giving students the chance to get a sense of the real-life situations which they study, and offering the prisoners intellectual stimulation and a deeper understanding of the legal structure in which they are entangled. This promotes a sense of dignity and empowerment which can reduce their chances of re-offending.

Ground Floor Plan. Image © Glen Santayana

In the pre-release building, inmates whose sentences are nearing an end get the opportunity to learn new skills, gaining access to metal and wood workshops, computer labs and a range of other environments where they can learn hands-on, employable skills. Finally, the community center is posited as a peace offering to those members of the wider community who are skeptical about being a neighborhood arranged around a prison; it is hoped that the benefits to the community will be greater than the stigma of the prison, and that this stigma will also eventually recede over time.

Cross Section. Image © Glen Santayana

Santayana’s thesis is a sensitive and heavily researched proposal which looks at the current US prison system from a completely different angle, and might be a viable solution to a problem which is only getting increasingly desperate. You can investigate his proposal further via his website and his thesis presentation booklet here.

Cite: Stott, Rory. "A Radical New Approach to Prison Design" 08 Jan 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 24 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=464371>
  • trink

    restorative justice sounds great to intellectuals but how does it sound to the victims is the real question. Incredible how prisons suddenly become trendy projects for bored architects.

    • objkshn

      Restorative Justice considers the victim more than the current criminal justice system does. Presently, the prosecutor brings the action on the state’s behalf, not on behalf of the victim. What the victim wants the prosecutor may or may not consider. The prosecutor is not obligated to do that which the victim wants. The victim can make a statement at sentencing about how the crime has impacted them. This statement is one way (the judge and prosecutor do not speak directly to the victim) and it is largely irrelevant. The plea bargain has already been entered into and the conviction the defendant has agreed to plead guilty to may reduce the range of the sentence from that which the defendant had previously been facing. The judge’s discretion to sentence may further be curtailed under the terms of a plea bargain.

      Restorative justice, on the other hand, brings the victim together with the offender and the community so that there can be an understanding by all involved as to the harm occasioned by the crime and the factors involved in its commission so as to ensure the victim and community will be made whole and the offender will be matriculated back into society. Win all around.

      Prison design is part of the corrections model. I’d rather bored architects examined improvements to the current model than we continue on as-is, using models designed 100s of years ago by Jeremy Bentham (Panopticon).

  • Critical figuration

    I’m looking for myself in this project

  • outkasted

    What are the elites really up to? Any way we can put this building to the test in GTA 6

  • hdotx7

    I really like the facade treatment, as it does nothing

  • Chris

    This looks like a nightmare for security. Has the architect designed a security strategy in this thesis I wonder.

  • anvarch

    Who’s going to pay for all those computer labs, workshops and lessons that the prisoners get? And would students really want to spend their academic life with half of them are essentially criminals?

    • loic

      @anvarch actually 80% of the current USA’s inmates are minor drug offenders. So it is a good idea to try to re-fit them in to the society.

    • Oli

      To find a part of the answer read the article: “a prison which both integrates with a school of criminology”
      The criminals become a hands-on learning tool.

      The courses the prisoners get are an investement to put a stop “to city blocks with such high crime that the state is spending over a million dollars a year to incarcerate their residents”.

      And the less recidivism, the less bad influence and broken homes that create crime in the first place. = SAVINGS

      We need to start looking at long-term virtuous circles instead of only immediate profit. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

      The project probably isn’t perfect but the design of our prisons is a problem that needs to be adressed.

  • Hope

    I love this concept. My only concern is that it might be glorifying crime in the eyes of the depraved criminal mind. Why not commit crimes so that you get a free education and living in this beautiful architectural curvy building? ….If I was beat up daily, a minor drug dealer, gang killer and living in the projects… this would be almost like heaven. I would seek to get inside.

  • Michael

    I don’t understand this project

  • Gethin

    A perfect example of how cut off from reality architects have become.

  • Tevin

    as an architecture student, I believe the idea behind this was not to make living comfortable for criminals, I think its to re-think these systems we have in place. Correctional facilities aren’t serving their purpose. Most criminals get adapted with life on the inside and don’t know how to act when they get out. They get more comfortable with the way things are on the inside. This design would surely need some stipulations on which type of criminals get in, but I can see it happening.