Prisons aren’t generally known for their impressive architecture. But some prisons do make use of creative designs or are based on innovative ideas.
Here are three examples of architectural innovation in prisons:
1. The Panopticon (Designed by Jeremy Bentham)
The Panopticon was a concept created by the English social reformer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham during the late 18th century.
The design of the panopticon is circular, with guards in the center who can observe prisoners all around.
In practice, the Panopticon influenced the design of Millbank Prison in the UK, which opened as the National Penitentiary in 1821. It later influenced Pentonville prison in the UK: this was used as a model for 54 more prisons in Victorian Britain.
In the USA, the maximum-security F House at Statesville in Crest Hill (known colloquially as the “roundhouse”) was designed on a panopticon model. It was closed in 2016 due to health and safety concerns – the final panopticon prison building the US to close. It reopened in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.
2. Iowa State Penitentiary (Designed by Greg Cook)
Greg Cook had mental health in mind in his design that focused on “air quality, day lighting, and lighting in general.” The new eight-building campus for Iowa State Penitentiary was designed on a radial layout and an open courtyard at the center.
It includes patterned linoleum floors, splashes of light blue, and even garden areas. The campus-style design was no accident, as research into how prison architecture affects prisoners has suggested that:
“Prisoners in panopticon layouts were least positive about their relationships with officers. Prisoners in radial, courtyard, rectangular, and high-rise layouts had an increasingly positive judgment about officer-prisoner relationships. When compared with prisoners in panopticon layouts, prisoners in campus layouts were most positive about these relationships.”
3. Storstrøm Prison (Designed by C.F. Møller Architects)
In Denmark, Storstrøm Prison is also designed more like a university campus. The grounds look like a Danish village, and include distinctively Scandinavian architecture – with lots of angled facades, natural materials, and glass. There’s a grocery store, church, visitor center for families, library, and even a playground where prisoners can see their visiting children.
The individual cells are more like dorm rooms: they don’t just have a bed, but also include windows, a private bathroom, and a desk. Instead of having a central cafeteria, groups of cells share communal kitchen and living areas.
Of course, the prison is still a prison. It has over 300 cameras, it’s surrounded by a 20’ concrete wall and – like the Panopticon – the floor plans are carefully arranged so guards can see everything.
Contacting a Relative in Jail or Prison, e.g. in North Dakota
If you have an incarcerated relative, you might be worried about them. Perhaps you know their prison is an old building that definitely hasn’t been designed with inmates’ mental health in mind.
You can get in touch with your relative by looking them up in an inmate search online. For instance, this PrisonRoster page lets you find inmates in the Burleigh County Detention Center in North Dakota. If you’re not sure where your relative is incarcerated, you can search all institutions in the state.
Once you know your relative’s prisoner ID number, you can write them a letter, or even deposit money in their prison account so they can buy items from the commissary (prison shop). In a poorly designed prison, being able to buy personal items like earplugs or headphones can make issues like noise levels much more tolerable.
Architects are steadily grappling with the ethical considerations of prison design. As governments and citizens increasingly recognize the importance of rehabilitation in helping inmates lead a good life after prison, prison architecture looks set to continue to change over the years to come.
Photo by Lex Photography from Pexels