I often get asked why I work on the design of prisons and correctional centres … here’s why. I have been involved in the design, documentation, and construction of prisons throughout Australia for 20 years, and am constantly reminded of how each project possesses different challenges and inspirations.
My focus on an architecture of rehabilitation.
Architecture, landscape, and the built environment influence people. These elements change both how we interact, and how we view ourselves. It reasons, therefore, that the physical environment of a prison influences prisoners, staff, and visitors in a myriad of ways leave us with a great opportunity, but also a weighty responsibility.
Research demonstrates that if prisoners feel safe, they are more likely to engage in rehabilitation and education programs, and for education and programs to be effective; in light of this, our master planning of secure accommodation creates communities that are engaging, uplifting, and interactive, but ones that also communicate a felt sense of safety and security.
Embracing all the challenges
Designing prisons is incredibly complex across master planning, building design, physical construction, and construction detailing. These multi-layered complexities provide challenges, and also require a well-founded all-encompassing project vision to provide a design pathway.
- Masterplanning – must provide for the optimum relationships between buildings, minimise blind spots, create a feeling of openness, and spaciousness, whilst taking up the smallest footprint (for construction efficiency) and also allow for expansion and flexibility. Vehicular paths must be separated from pedestrian paths, and many buildings need escape paths into non-prisoner areas. Mainstream and remand prisoners should be kept separate but have equal access to shared services. And, this is just a selection of the issues!
- A small town – each prison has many of the functions of a small town; housing, recreation, education, health, workplaces, administration, places for religious observance, places to meet friends and family, maintenance areas as well as the supporting facilities of plant rooms, waste treatment areas, and energy production. Few other projects provide this type of variance in one project.
- Building layouts – across all of the small town facilities, each building has its own functional layout requirements, with specific security needs. For example, a health building will have outpatient and inpatient (ward) facilities, dental, x-ray, pharmacy and administrative areas like any community health facility, but also with an oversight, physical security and electronic security overlay.
- Building forms - external building forms must be approachable and non-institutional, minimise opportunities to climb and access roofs, be low maintenance, and utilise an architecture that reflects its place within the small town.
- Construction methodologies – as the entire ‘small town’ is being built simultaneously, and projects like these are rarely blessed with lots of time, construction must be efficient and reliable, new materials can be used providing they have been proven elsewhere, products must be low maintenance to minimise upgrade works after occupation, and overall construction must reflect available building resources in the location at the time the facility is being built. For example, a $500m prison may not all be built from precast concrete if the local precast industry cannot produce that amount of concrete in the time available. Therefore, different buildings may use different construction techniques, and these vary from project to project.
- Construction detailing – physical robustness is paramount to prevent intentional or wilful damage, and this draws on our decades of skills in producing details that will last, even when under attack.
- Preventing self-harm – the high level of mental health issues in prisons, combined with the impact of removal of individual’s freedom within prison greatly increases the potential for self-harm or suicide attempts. Certain parts of the facilities need to remove all obvious self-harm and suicide opportunities which requires a highly technical construction knowledge.
The challenge of integrating these elements (and many more) for the successful delivery of a prison project is unlike any other project typology.
Each Australian State has its own approach to masterplanning, building design, detailing, and cell designs, much of which is not formalised or documented, and where it is documented is often in a state of revision and update. Therefore, the organisational knowledge required to successfully deliver a project, both through implementing what we know, knowing what questions to ask at appropriate times, continually challenges us and brings our team together.
Environmental / ESD initiatives.
Prisons are 24/7 operations. We are therefore constantly incorporating designing to reduce overall operating costs and environmental impact. Private and public prison operators alike know they are operating facilities for at least 20 or 30 years, and therefore early investment has a long-term pay-off. Our prison projects are often at the forefront of environmental design.
Hopkins Correctional Centre, and Ravenhall Correctional Centre are both at the cutting edge of the implementation of ESD principles within prison architecture.
Different types of accolades.
There’s a stereotype that architects are always searching for the next accolade or award. This may or may not be true for some architects. There’s little fame in prison architecture, but I am OK with that! We get to work on facilities that help make our community a better place, by working to ensure prisoners are better when they are released to when they arrive.
I love embracing these challenges and opportunities, and being part of positively changing individual’s lives. Through these projects, I live out Guymer Bailey’s vision of: Inspired people, inspiring people, to design a better, sustainable world. And I get to work with people that share this vision.