Why prison design is important

My key points for the importance of prison design are based around the fact that we have an outrageously high reoffending rate (75%+) and through studies people have shown that this can be much, much lower.


  • If Prisons and more importantly Prison Systems are well designed and well managed it can significantly reduce reoffending
  • The public will not accept Prisons that are not Prisons in a traditional sense and for that reason politicians will not propose such designs to the UK voter base; we need to design prisons that are Prisons in a traditional sense on the face of things while being very progressive in every other way; this is a constraint of our times which may change over the coming decades
  • The design of the physical architecture and super structure needs to be designed in conjunction with all the systems that operate within; structure and physical design changes coupled with system changes can cause large knock-on effects that alter core design and management constraints

The problem

The UK prison system has wide ranging problems that are very difficult to address within the existing system.

The long-term poor management of the prison system from the ‘top down’ means that there has been little structured improvement over the past twenty years and certainly no improvement with real vision. There has been poor spread of best-practice and prisons operating independent to each other and politicians who are either too lazy or too afraid to bring change to a sector where strong unions and a change-resistive civil service can make significant change very difficult to effect.

With a 75%+ reoffending rate, prisons are clearly not effective enough and this in turn causes society significant problems and costs an estimated £11bn each year through the cost of reoffending. The UK prison population has been growing steadily, and as the rate of reoffence is a key driver of an increased accumulation of prisoners it is clear that something can be done better.

Rising prison populations puts stress on all parts of a system that has its budgets frequently reduced which, in turn, creates a more disaffected and lower paid work force. Prison overcrowding forces courts to hasten the early release of prisoners, and for the government to put pressure on judges to be more lenient on convicted persons.

The UK’s prison estate is generally quite old, with many being over 100 years old making them difficult for them to be restructured and reorganised to be fit for 21st century standards and incorporate up-to-date technologies.

The location of prisons and how the systems are organised can mean prisoners are being held hundreds of miles away from their town of conviction an effect that is exaggerated by over crowding meaning that to shuffle prisoners around prison managers are forced to move prisoners to any prison where there is space. This makes it very difficult for prisoner’s families and friends to visit, even more so when you consider that the majority of prisoners come from low-income backgrounds. This can have knock on cost implications where prisoners are transported hundreds of miles to attend courts or hospital appointments  and adding further strain to the system.

Many UK prisons are awash with drugs and contraband, with some prisoners actually acquiring drug addictions while in prison. Significant amounts of the drugs and contraband are supplied by disaffected staff which in itself creates significant challenges for the prison system.

Prison often does nothing to properly rehabilitate prisoners and they often leave prison with more established criminal networks and with a better understanding of how to make a living illegally couple with a conviction that puts its own barriers to employment. Initiatives that do help in these areas are often seen as add-ons to the existing system making it easy for prisoners to miss out and for the initiatives to be the first to be cut first when budgetary requirements demand it.

In short, the prison systems of the UK, and many other countries require a re-think to help turn the trend of greater prison populations, the positive feedback effect this has to crime levels, and to reduce the damaging effects that rising levels of crime cause to society.

Political issues

Managing the prison system is not an easy job.

Administrators of the system are criticised by the media, victims and the public of recklessness when releasing prisoners on parole early; especially when they continue to commit crime. Along-side this criticism of early-bail offenders they are criticised by for the living conditions of prisoners in overcrowded prisons, short term fixes for both problems adversely impact one another.

With a legacy of problems passed down from previous governments, increasing prison populations and public pressure for prison sentences to be completed; those who manage this system are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t, especially if they are unlikely to be in position long enough to see the results of long term change.

It is the nature of this climate that drives current policy where, by any means, the problem of prison over crowding, the knock on effects of early release and reduction of prison sentences must be solved as fast as possible. The obvious solution to fix this problem is to build capacity as fast as possible. It is easier, and quicker, to build a few very large prisons than many smaller ones. Pushing planning permission through above local government solves some of the planning issues and therefore the fewer prisons built; the fewer people enraged meaning that new prisons need to be bigger and the bigger the organisation the less effective it can be at reducing reoffending.

Unfortunately, the most obvious, simplistic and quickest solutions are often not the best solutions, especially when you are trying to deal effectively with the most complex and controversial aspects of society.

There can also be a reluctance to change from within the political system where the upsetting of the status quo will inconvenience people, put jobs at risk or simply encroach on different people’s budgets. Preventing positive change for these reasons is simply irresponsible.

The following diagram is from ‘Political Risk Perceptions’ article; you can view that here.

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