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Nicer-looking prisons aren’t the solution

Alexandra Cox and Tim Barrett respond to an article on the effect of better architecture on the prison population

Regarding the article on prisons by Oliver Wainwright (Raising the bars, G2, 2 September), as a lecturer who has taught in the US and the UK, and researched and worked in both prison systems, I groan every time one of my students asks me about the now-celebrated Halden prison in Norway. It is a challenge to teach students - and perhaps the public - about our commitment to the idea that we can design our way out of the prison problem.

Thus when I saw Halden referenced in Wainwright's article about the UK's efforts to redesign prisons to be more rehabilitative, I noted the omission of prison abolitionist perspectives. Abolitionists argue that it may not matter how nice prisons are, they are still fundamentally oppressive institutions that sustain social and racial hierarchies and systems of political and social violence.

While space is significant in shaping human interactions and relationships, it is the social structures, cultural assumptions, and historic commitments that also drive imprisonment. It may be perfectly possible today to imagine that Boris Johnson may recognise that being tough on crime can sell politically if prison expansion is tied to the update of the prison estate. This leads to unresolvable ethical tensions: we oppose his proposed expansion of prisons, but would we oppose it if the prison estate looked nicer?

Some have termed the reformist tilt towards the improvement of prison design and the incorporation of more rehabilitative strategies as "carceral humanism", questioning whether these efforts can be truly humanist if they are undergirded by a carceral drive. At what point do we more seriously consider decarceration as a social aim, as opposed to simply rehabilitation?
Dr Alexandra Cox
Senior lecturer, department of sociology, University of Essex

The appalling state of this country's prison system, as described in your G2 article, is made all the more reprehensible by the lack of any meaningful attention that successive governments have given to the 1991 report by Lord Woolf into the mass riots that occurred in Manchester's Strangeways prison the previous year.

Had this report's proposed shift towards smaller, locally based units - combined with the greater use of alternative community sentences - been followed, we wouldn't be heading toward a hugely costly rerun of the scenes of destruction witnessed at prisons across the country nearly 30 years ago.

Isn't it time that policy shapers, makers and enactors stopped believing that humiliating and dehumanising prisoners encourages them to reform, deters others from offending or makes the public at large any safer?


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