The UK government is selling off bloodstained Victorian prisons to swanky hotel developers – and building new ones that are just as grim and oppressive. To really ‘design out’ reoffending, they should look to Scandinavia’s open, trusting prisons
“The style of architecture of a prison,” states the 1826 Encyclopaedia Londinensis, “offers an effectual method of exciting the imagination to a most desirable point of abhorrence.” Spelling out the principles of good jail design, it goes on to add that “the exterior should, therefore, be formed in the heavy and sombre style, which most forcibly impresses the spectator with gloom and terror”.
You would be forgiven for thinking this was the government’s current guidance on prisons, judging by the £250m “super-prison” currently rising amid a jumble of industrial sheds on the outskirts of Wrexham in north Wales. As the architects’ design statement proudly claims, one of the principal objectives was “to ensure that the design of the proposed prison aligns with the character and appearance of the surrounding industrial estate”. Just as the nearby warehouses have been designed for the stacking and processing of goods, so the super-prison appears to be conceived as a pile-’em-high battery farm for 2,100 inmates. A relentless grid of small square windows will run along the grey walls of the vast accommodation blocks, with cells arranged in long radial corridors around a central hub – in the same way that prisons have been configured since Victorian times.
The historic similarities are poignant, given that Michael Gove, justice secretary and lover of simpler times past, has just announced a £1bn plan to close down inner-city Victorian prisons, sell them off to housing developers and use the money to build nine new super-prisons like the one in Wrexham, to hold a total of 10,000 prisoners. “We will be able to design out the dark corners which too often facilitate violence and drug-taking,” he said, suggesting that architecture might actually have a role to play. This marks an about-turn from his view of school design, a process from which he sought to remove architects entirely when he was education secretary, accusing them of “creaming off cash” with their fancy plans. […]