How Norway designed a more humane prison? These photos look like they’re from a hotel, or a fancy college dorm room. There’s a gym, common areas, and private bedrooms. But this place, just outside Halden, Norway, is a prison.
There’s no barbed wire, lots of greenery, and striking contemporary art. Inmates even have pretty great views out of their cell windows. It’s all part of a plan to make prisons more humane — through design.
The underlying philosophy behind humane prison design argues that the look and feel of a prison shouldn’t be a punishment. And the first thing designers focus on is the basic architecture of prison buildings. In most prison architecture, facilities are consolidated into one contiguous building.
A courtyard design uses a rectangular building around a central outdoor space. In a telephone pole design, rows of buildings are stacked like a ladder. And radial designs have corridors that branch out from a central hub, like spokes on a wheel.
While these layouts are good for moving lots of inmates around efficiently, they restrict prisoners to identical indoor hallways day after day, and tight quarters can unintentionally create tension and conflict. So humane prisons are often laid out in a campus design, where facilities are split between separate buildings, with a surrounding perimeter wall.
At Norway’s Halden Prison, housing is located here, while education and visitation spaces are here, in separate buildings. This means most inmates have to start their day with a commute — mimicking life in the outside world and providing easy access to outdoor physical activity.
And unlike other layouts, which have windows that look out onto the prison itself, campus design gives inmates a rich view of their surrounding environment. This access to nature also helps inmates track the passage of time. Spending time outside and seeing days and seasons pass through windows helps reduce this problem.
Plus, the grounds of humane prisons are usually landscaped carefully. At Halden, tall birch and pine trees dwarf the buildings and obscure the perimeter wall, lending what designers call an “anti-authoritarian” feel to the campus: inmates are never made to feel intimidated by the architecture itself.
Building materials influence humane design too. In other prisons, interiors are made from hard materials like concrete, linoleum, and steel. Materials like this block light, are visually unappealing, and constantly reflect noise. In prisons like Halden, you’ll see glass to let in natural light, and materials like cork and wood to muffle noise.
But humane prison design isn’t just about architecture and materials. It’s also about what happens inside the walls. Halden’s design affects the way correctional officers and inmates interact. Because housing is broken up into small communities with a shared kitchen and communal space, correctional officers can easily monitor inmates through regular face-to-face contact, instead of observing large groups of people from a distance.
And the guards’ rooms are intentionally designed too small, to incentivize them to move out into the inmates’ common area. Campus layouts help that relationship flourish: A study of architecture in Dutch correctional facilities found that campus design ranked highest in inmate-staff relationships.
And US prison studies from the late ‘90s found that this style of direct contact resulted in fewer violent or security-related incidents. Designing these humane prisons costs money. Which is why most of the groundbreaking work is happening in Western Europe and Scandinavia, where smaller prison populations and more robust social support systems allow for more flexible experimentation.
And because US prisons often prize cost-saving over design, it’s still uncommon to see them here. But places like Halden are setting a new precedent for what the prison of the future could look like. It might feel counterintuitive to create pleasant, well-designed spaces like this for people who have committed crimes. But under a design philosophy like this, being imprisoned is the punishment — the architecture doesn’t have to be.
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