The physical design of prison is often overlooked but could play a significant part in the wellbeing of prisoners, specifically concerning recidivism. Some other countries have a very different approach.
Why design matters
In designing homes, we often give much thought to the layout, colour scheme and furniture that would make the home more comfortable, livable and enjoyable. This concept however is not considered in the design of most Canadian prisons even though many prisoners spend years in these institutions. Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case, with most prisons being ugly buildings with ugly interiors. Most Canadian prisons have standard small prison cells behind bars or metal doors, with a small and uncomfortable bed and immovable, uncomfortable metal furniture. The things most of us value – colour, comfort, windows, access to fresh air – are largely missing.
Why has Canada built prisons that are such unhealthy environments for people?
One large factor in prison design is assumptions about security and safety. Cells are built without anything that could be used in a riot, for example, or to make it more difficult for prisoners to kill themselves, which remains a major issue in Canadian prisons.
More to the point, there is a battle between rehabilitation and punishment in Canadian jails and prisons, which the latter seems to be winning. Canadian prisons show a greater emphasis on enforcing punishment rather than supporting the rehabilitating of prisoners. Design is one of the ways in which this emphasis on punishment is apparent.
The Canadian situation tends to follow that of our American neighbours, especially for the 95% of prisoners in Canada who are in medium or high security prisons. Here security conditions are usually very restrictive. Some of our penitentiaries still use very old buildings that are in very poor condition. The tight restrictions and designs of the institutions don’t give inmates the incentive or resources to leave the prison more able to avoid committing another crime. When we look at what leads someone to commit a crime, lack of social supports, unemployment and poor housing are evident. Prisoners in institutions that prioritize punishment over rehabilitation are unlikely to have success in these areas.
On the other hand, Canada uses a different form of prison design for its healing lodges, which are designed largely for Aboriginal prisoners and focus on Aboriginal concepts of reconciliation and healing instead of punishment. This is an acknowledgement by Canada that design of prisons does play a role in the wellbeing of prisoners and the risk of reoffending.
Some minimum security prisons in Canada also use houses instead of cells, with ordinary furniture, prisoners making their own meals, and grounds that allow prisoners to walk around and experience the natural world. However only a few thousand of the 25,000 or so people in jail in Canada on any given day are in a healing lodge or minimum security prison. And all those held on remand, who have not been found guilty of any crime, are in provincial jails that are almost all high security and very unpleasant physical settings.
In some other countries, such as Sweden we see an approach that places more emphasis on rehabilitation than on security and safety .
Swedish prisons avoid typical prison cells and use “open prison” systems which resemble school dorms. Prisoners have more comfortable facilities as well as more freedom to move around and visit with their families. In 2020, in Sweden prisoner numbers dropped from 5,722 to 4,500 and 4 prisons were closed due to disuse and a 16% reoffending rate Even in high security institutions, common areas include pool tables, steel darts, aquariums, art pieces. These simple inclusions bring back that humane aspect that prisons in other countries have been significantly lacking. Swedish prisons display a positive approach to prison design that supports rehabilitation over punishment.
The physical design of prisons plays a significant part in the wellbeing of prisoners and affects the risks of re-offending. Prison designs that focus more on rehabilitation seem to be more effective as they are related to lower rates of recidivism. Canada’s correctional facilities should consider changing facilities to provide a more humane environment because this is likely to support the goal of reducing crime and harm in future.