The prison of the future

In 2010, Malaysian designers won first prize in a skyscraper design competition with a vertical prison meant to address the problem of excessive post-release offenses. This is done through inmate rehabilitation, a feature largely missing in current...


In 2010, Malaysian designers won first prize in a skyscraper design competition with a vertical prison meant to address the problem of excessive post-release offenses. This is done through inmate rehabilitation, a feature largely missing in current prisons.

In the vertical prison, inmates live in a colony suspended above the city, working to sustain themselves and contribute to the community below. The sky prison has fields, factories, and recycling plants operated by offenders as a way of giving back to the community. There are no walls; the height of the facility precludes them.

On a more practical, down-to-earth level, Jane Emory Prather, a sociology professor at California State University-Northridge and a Marymount Manhattan College adjunct professor at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York, says the issue of punishment vs. rehabilitation is no longer the relevant question.

“Instead, we need to reduce the number of inmates and prevent their return to prison,” Prather says. As of 2009, 2.2 million prisoners were serving time in American prisons, five times as many as in 1980. China, with four times the U.S. population, has one-fourth fewer prisoners.

Prather believes recidivism can be reduced, maybe even eliminated, through education. She believes education is a key to positive prison outcomes, particularly if the classes include academic subjects, creative arts, and technical and computer skills, not merely the usual prison work distractions that serve mostly as prison maintenance.

“At Bedford, there has never been a released prisoner return if she attended the college program,” Prather says.

Prather would also like to see more prisons designed to include childcare units, so female inmates can care for their infants or where inmates could share recreational time with older children. About 187,000 females are currently serving time in U.S. facilities, many of them with families.

“Bedford Hills runs summer camps so youths can spend time with their imprisoned mothers,” she says. Smaller living units rather than barracks-style bunk stacks would also benefit prisoners, Prather says. At Bedford, honor inmates live in a former administrator’s house where they have several floors with kitchen facilities. This is not coddling, it’s practicality.

“The more prisoners are treated with respect, the more this is reflected in their behavior,” she says.

Jail break

While criminologists wrestle with penal philosophy, architects are achieving their own concepts of reform through changes in building design, many that include smaller cell/living units in place of the large Gothic cell blocks of the past.

So-called prisons-of-the-future are popping up all over. Oregon believes it has designed the prison of the future, one that is safer to manage and cheaper to operate than the sprawling cell blocks that surround central yards of prisons like Attica, Pelican Bay and Alcatraz.

The main wing of Two Rivers Correctional Institution, which opened in 2007 in the small town of Umatilla on the Columbia River, holds 1,344 inmates in 14 housing pods of 96 men apiece. There is no traditional large central yard. Each unit has its own yard, not much larger than a tennis court. With the exceptions of work and worship, everything else the 96 men in each unit do, from eating, sleeping and showering to TV, treadmill, and haircuts, they do in the unit.

The Two Rivers facility is designed to separate prisoners so inmates in one pod rarely—if ever—see inmates from other units, even though the pods are attached to each other. At least four other new Oregon prisons have mimicked the podular design.

Veteran prison architect Lawrence Goldberg at Goldberg, Sullivan & McCrerey, headquartered in St. Joseph, Mo., who helped pioneer podular prison design, says the more pods you can design into the plan and the smaller you can make them, the greater the chance of properly classifying inmate populations so that bad check passers and drug addicts are not housed with violent felons. Safety is served.

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