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The wisdom of humane prison design

  • 24 April 2015

There's a saying amongst prisoners: ‘You can't sharpen a knife on a blanket’.

In other words, the tougher the prison is, the tougher the prisoners will get, just to survive. Then, when they are released, all they know is crime and the only people they know are criminals with no money.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The design of Norway’s maximum-security Halden facility (pictured) incorporates a new way of thinking about prisons and the people in them. None of the windows has bars, and the cells are designed with ensuites and flat screen TVs, to mirror life ‘on the outside’ as far as possible.

This provides a start contrast with the increasingly punitive thinking in the United States, and also Australia. Our Indigenous incarceration rates are climbing, and we’re following the US into prison privatisation, with several of our facilities already operated by overseas companies.

Is it possible – and desirable – for prisons to be humane?

Some would say the very idea conflicts with our ideology of condemning criminal acts and removing those who commit them from society. Then there are the pragmatists who argue that the majority of inmates will be 'out-mates' at some point, and around 30 to 40% of people who are in prison will end up back there.

Many concede that life on the inside does not lead to a crime-free life on the outside. But we baulk at the idea of trying to help prisoners. Therapy? For criminals? It may seem that we're pandering to their needs, but wouldn't it be better if we could somehow make it so that, when they get out of prison, they weren't as likely as they are now to commit more crimes?

The idea of spending money on prisoners is anathema to the Australian public. We can hardly imagine installing $1 million worth of artwork in a maximum security prison. But that's exactly what the planners of Halden Prison did, and the recidivism rates in Norway, and their incarceration rates generally, are almost half ours. Another difference is that Norwegian guards must undertake three years of training in understanding criminals, prison life, and the philosophies behind them, whereas our guards undertake only a short course for 14 weeks.

In 2008 we opened the Alexander Maconochie Centre in Canberra. At significant cost to taxpayers, it featured domestic style cottages, an education building and a library. The rooms there are not hard-granite cells and the