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 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.

“Pods give prison authorities flexibility, so violent predators, say, can be housed in Pod A, burglars with substance abuse issues that need treatment go in Pod B, and low security inmates like check passers go in Pod C,” Goldberg says. “If all you have are large cell blocks with 50 to 80 cells opening into one day room and one yard, you may have to put your check passer in with the serial killer.”

Not only does podular design increase classification flexibility, it tends to lower costs. California built 23 new prisons between 1980 and 2000 and now spends approximately $9 billion a year on its correctional system. In a podular system, guards can supervise more than one pod from a central control facility, so fewer guards are necessary. California currently employs 30,000 prison guards, the costs of which amount to 40 percent of its prison budget. Correctional departments are therefore always leaning on architects to find ways to reduce prison operating costs.

Goldberg says one way to lower costs is through the use of electronictechnology.

“We can now harness an array of electronic technology, the likes of which was neither available nor affordable 10 or 20 years ago,” he says. One example is video arraignment, where a communications link is established from jail to courthouse, so for early appearances and certain hearings the accused does not need a two-sheriff escort to the courthouse for most of the day. Goldberg says this type of video link, which cost over $100,000 just a few years ago, can be installed now for $20,000 to $30,000.

Another electronic advance is video visitation, where inmates uses a link from a booth in the day room to remotely communicate with visitors located in the prison lobby, or perhaps one day at home. Guard escort duties are thus reduced.

“Placing these types of affordable technologies in the cutting-edge jails not only enhances security, it lowers manpower costs,” Goldberg says.

Divide & conquer

The use of new electronic technologies, as well as the podular divide and conquer design, is also popular in Europe. One new high-tech jail in the Netherlands is built around a number of innovations. Suitable, non-violent prisoners are housed in 25 six-person cells, inmates wear electronic wristbands so guards can track their movements, and guards are equipped with handheld devices to monitor trouble. Cells have three bunk beds (each bed with its own touchscreen television), two toilets, one shower, a washer-dryer, and dining table with six chairs.

On average, 150 prisoners are housed at Lelystad, overseen by no more than six guards. According to Dutch correctional authorities, the prison is seen as the future of correctional facilities because it is cheaper and more efficient to operate. At the same time it does not coddle criminals, nor violate fundamental human rights. An electronic innovation is aggression detectors, which are devices that register characteristic sounds of human aggression, while filtering out normal ambient conversation. Audible signs of anger, fear, and panic usually precede physical violence. When aggression is detected, the device activates an alarm in the nearest control room, permitting timely intervention.

In Austria, architect Josef Hohensinn considered an element of home-comfort in the design for his new Justice and Detention Centre in Leoben. At Leoben, eligible prisoners in groups up to 13 are housed in a wing of their own and can move freely among the cells and communal spaces. Hohensinn also provided the opportunity of stepping out for fresh air, so each communal section has a loggia (an open-air area similar to a courtyard or porch)—with bars.

Beat the rap

If these new prison concepts sound more like men’s retreats than real prisons it’s because designers sense what no one likes to admit—the current prison system is flawed and maybe unreformable, at least if the point of imprisonment is rehabilitation.

“We can make prisons better but we cannot make them work,” says Peter Moskos, a professor of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of “Cops in the Hood.” “Prisons will always fail at their goal of reducing crime because rehabilitation, if it stands any chance of success, must be separated from incarceration.”

While conceding that alternatives are needed, Moskos wishes reformers the best of luck. He says there are prison reforms that can be made and should be made, but on a more fundamental level reform is just tinkering with an institution that has failed miserably.

Moskos says house arrest is one solution. He believes the use of electronic home monitoring and surveillance technologies could dramatically reduce taxpayer burden by confining non-violent offenders in their own homes, where they would pay their own rent, buy their own food, and arrange their own health care, thereby relieving taxpayers of the cost of imprisonment. California, which has more prisoners than Germany and the UK combined, spends an average of about $47,000 per inmate per year—two-thirds of which is spent on security and inmate health care.

But, if house arrest for qualifying inmates isn’t considered punishment enough, Moskos favors just about anything that keeps people out of prison. Even flogging. In fact, he recently published a book on the subject, appropriately titled “In Defense of Flogging.” In his view, prisons have simply become mass institutions of punishment and are doomed to continued failure.

Moskos adds: “We need to think of better and cheaper ways to punish that does less harm.”


Douglas Page writes about technology from Pine Mountain, Calif. Reach him at