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Changing Inmates’ Behavior With Architecture

Denmark’s new prison has a grocery store, workshops, and lots of glass. It looks more like a college campus–and that’s the whole point.

Can a prison be humane? In socially progressive Scandinavia, perhaps. The Danish Prison and Probation Service and architecture firm CF Møller have designed what they’re calling the world’s “most humane” maximum security prison.

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About 70 miles southeast of Copenhagen, in the town of Gundslev, Storstrøm Prison looks more like a university campus than a typical prison. Both the architecture and social policy at the prison aim to reduce recidivism by emphasizing rehabilitation, an approach that Scandinavian countries employ. Sweden, for example, has a recidivism rate of about 40%, which is about half that of the U.K., which has a traditional incarceration system. Scandinavia’s approach hinges on creating an environment that’s as close to normal day-to-day life as possible, which benefits both the 250 incarcerated individuals at Storstrøm and the prison guards.

“We truly believe, and evidently the statistics support us in this, that a hard and less-stimulating environment creates more re-offenders,” Mads Mandrup, an architect and partner at C.F. Møller Architects, tells Co.Design in an email. “As such the traditional, less humanistic prisons keep crime levels status quo.”

[Photo: Torben Eskerod/courtesy C.F. Møller]
The grounds are modeled after a regular Danish village, complete with open space and buildings with distinctively Scandinavian architecture–think angled facades, lots of glass, and natural materials. You won’t see anyone “behind bars,” so to speak, as the individual cells look more like dorm rooms with windows, a bed, a private bathroom, desk, and reading lamp. There’s no central cafeteria; instead groups of four to seven cells share communal kitchens where they prepare their own meals. They also share a living area, which is furnished and painted so it doesn’t have an institutional feel.

[Photo: Torben Eskerod/courtesy C.F. Møller]
But is better architecture the key to reducing repeat offenders? “It would be naive to think that architecture can achieve this alone,” Mandrup tells Co.Design. “Therefore, the general master planning and overall functionality of our scheme is a balancing act of creating a human interface, not only among the prisoners themselves but also towards the staff that play an important role in the many daily resocializing routines of the prison.”

The “resocializing” strategy essentially involves mirroring the routines of free people so that when the prisoners–who are mostly incarcerated for violent crimes–are released, they’re acclimated to law-abiding life. The prison’s outdoor spaces are landscaped like a grassy park and there are even a few sculptures. “Streets,” meaning paved walkways, connect all the buildings and there are dedicated structures for workshops (all of the prisoners have to work), a grocery store, a church, a visitor center for families, a playground where incarcerated individuals can see their children during visitation, and a library.

Still, the prison is very secure. It’s separated from the surrounding area–mostly rural farmland–by a 20-foot-tall concrete wall. There are over 300 cameras in the prison and the floor plans of the buildings are arranged so that guards can easily see everything.

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The strategy seems to be working. Denmark’s recidivism rate is about 27%, about half of the United States’ rate, which ranges between 49% and 80% depending on the type of crime committed. Still there are prison fights, drug smuggling, and escapes. As the Washington Post reported, the Danish system makes modifications to prevent those things from occurring, but not at the expense of dignity. For example, they don’t body cavity search people upon entry. When a prisoner stabbed another prisoner with a kitchen knife, the solution was to tether knives to the wall, not remove them entirely.

[Photo: Torben Eskerod/courtesy C.F. Møller]
So could this model for designing “humane” prisons work elsewhere? Mass incarceration in the United States runs on an entirely different model, where stripping individuals of dignity and subjecting them to inhumane and dangerous conditions is the status quo. However, criminal justice reformers are questioning these practices, from the cash bail system to the programming and look of city jails. New York City, for example, is contemplating a decentralized jail system and looking for new ways to manage inmates. Adopting the Danish model could be a step in the right direction.

“If you believe the architectural surroundings can have a positive effect on human well being and the overall ambition is to turn criminals into regular citizens finding their place in society, this seems to be a model to pursue,” Mandrup says. “In other words: If the ambition is never to see the same inmate twice, this seems to be a model for a modern prison where there is a strong correlation between rehabilitation programming and architecture.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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