Humane Prisons: Why should we care about the inmates’ environment?

Many of us first felt what isolation means after experiencing the pandemic lockdown. Photo by Wendy Alvarez on Unsplash

Before 2020, how many of you have been thinking about the importance of space and freedom? Not many, probably. We are inclined to constantly attend all the space we have available, without special constraints, except in rare cases. 

Most of us have never had any coercion problems before. On the contrary. We have used new technologies and globalization to broaden our experiences beyond our family, friends and home town. We never really had the need to ask ourselves: “What if this space was denied to me? How would I react? What would happen to my mind if the body was confined to a small and limiting space?”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, we suddenly find ourselves closer to the conditions of people we don’t think about that often. It’s not pleasant. But it helps us understand what the deprivation of freedoms feels like. And if it’s true that empathy is the fundamental tool through which we can understand others, then we should also rely on it. Free ourselves from prejudice to better comprehend and improve the prison system.

I ask you to leave aside all political and ethical preconceptions. Abandon all the negative emotions that emerge when thinking about words such as “prison” or “inmate”. Release yourself from the mental superstructures, to which we are constantly subjected. Free your mind and think positively for a while.

Still, what I want to suggest is not just a subjective judgement, though I do have strong opinions about this topic. I don’t want to discuss if prisons are effective or what type of punishment should be given to people. This is not the right place. I want to draw attention to the need to humanize the spaces of detention, so that they change from reservoirs of “human waste” to a source of redemption and inspiration. 

The Harsh Reality of European prisons

According to the European Prison Observatory, a project coordinated by the Italian NGO Antigone, around 600 000 people are currently detained in European penal institutes. Countries with the highest prison population are the United Kingdom and Poland followed by France, Germany, Italy, and Spain.

crowded subway station
The unpleasant, stressful crowding, like the one we experience during the morning commute, is a daily reality for thousands of inmates. Photo by Lerone Pieters on Unsplash

If we look at the incarceration rates per 100 000 people, Poland gains the podium with a rate of 194. To illustrate it, its number of inmates is a bit higher than in France, but it has a population almost half of France. And it’s not much better in other Eastern countries such as Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and the Slovak Republic, which have detention rates between 173 and 234.

Another important number is the crowding rate – the ratio between the number of prisoners and the actual prison capacity. In this case, France, Italy, Hungary, and Romania are the countries with the most overcrowded prison systems. Poland and the other Eastern countries, on the other hand, have a much lower crowding rate. The explanation could lay in the legacy of existing infrastructures from the previous regimes and in the way the prison capacity is calculated: by law, each detainee could be allocated less square meters compared to other countries. 

In 2017, 1380 people committed suicide in European prisons, which is 4.4 times higher than the average suicide rate among free people. The highest numbers can be found in France, Austria, and Germany, with 12 suicides per 10.000 prisoners. 

Looking at the relapse rate, the situation is not much better. In Italy, for example, it stands at around 68%, while in the UK at 50%. This means that jail is still considered as a place of custody more than a rehabilitation and resocialization place, and in some cases, we can even speak of potential crime schools. People enter as snack thieves and leave as future killers.

To get to know a society, look at its prisons

Voltaire believed that prisons reflected the level of country’s civilization. Prisons are the thermometer of democracy, the reflection of people’s anxieties, the unconscious put aside. The more frustrated the society is, the worse the conditions under which prisoners are kept. The crueler the place of punishment, the more rotten, weaker and overwhelmed the judicial system is. Prisons are like water, deep down the well, to which only the state is allowed to come within sight, to observe itself narcissistically, and to gain awareness of its absolute sovereignty.

abandoned prison block
The hard materials create a stressful acoustical environment, which further contributes to aggression and frustration. Photo by Jonathan Cooper on Unsplash

As Elton Kalica, researcher at the University of Padua and coordinator of the Master in Critical Criminology, claims, institutions do everything to divert our gaze from prisons and to make it invisible to the community. They try to limit access, to exclude it from the cities, to prevent our gaze from penetrating it and unveiling its workings.

Therefore, prisons are places of depersonalization and loneliness. They are like cages, as many small theaters, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized, and constantly visible. In this state of affairs, the life of prisoners, visitors and staff (rarely mentioned), loses all its value.

Neuroscience and environmental psychology as tools to improve prison design

Improving the lives of people behind bars is not a question of granting them a greater degree of freedom or privileges, nor it’s about stripping the purpose of prisons as deprivation of liberty. It’s rather about ensuring that the psycho-physiological and social needs of prisoners are not further compromised.

To do this, we now have the opportunity to mobilize neuroscience and environmental psychology. They help us to determine in a more objective and detailed way the impact of a space on the nervous system, cognitive and relational abilities. 

Space, according to the latest neuroscientific research, can be considered as an effective tool to manage emotions, foster relationships, and enable well-being. It means that making prison spaces better can help us address aggression, perception of overcrowding and to reduce the risk of relapses and recidivism.

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The range of mental illnesses with which inmates come to prison is varied and wide, but the ones they leave with can be much more serious. According to the President of the Italian Society of Medicine and Penitentiary Health, Luciano Lucania, the sudden loss of freedom and the shock resulting from detention affect the psyche of prisoners, transforming the prison into a place where psychiatric problems are born and where they explode.

As the Italian journalist Viviana Lanza reports, about 40% of inmates who live in Italian prisons, after years of detention, have psychiatric or oncological pathologies. This shows how serving a long sentence in an overcrowded cell, with poor sanitation and little light or space can leave a mark on the mind and the body.

small grated window
Natural light, so essential to human well-being is in short supply in many prisons. Photo by Ennio Brehm on Unsplash

Research by Roger Ulrich, professor at the Centre for Healthcare Architecture at the University of Chalmers, and many others, converges on the idea that space strongly affects the mind of those who experience it, and that some architectural elements weigh more than others on people’s health and perception of the space itself.

As already hypothesized a century ago by the Environmental Theory of the English field nurse Florence Nightingale, spatial conditions not only affect the life and development of an organism, but are also capable of preventing, reducing or contributing to the development of pain and mental illnesses. Cleanliness, good ventilation, light, and quiet are crucial for maintaining health.

Think of how important are the rooms, whose size and name (cells), refer to claustrophobic honeycombs, instead of the welcoming and familiar environments they should be.

Take natural light, small amounts, conveyed by windows that open onto prison fences rather than on natural views. Instead of calming down, they support the loss of relationship with the passage of time. 

Another negative effect of the current design of prisons is called misophonia. It’s caused by the materials used and their bad acoustic properties, which increases aggression and sense of disorientation.  All this contributes to further aggravating the perception of crowding, which is one of the major causes of discomfort, stress, aggression, violence and suicide.

Our responsibility towards fellow humans

If there is such a strong correlation between the space in which we live and what we become as human beings, how can we think of rehabilitating those who have committed crimes, mild or severe, by locking them in a place of darkness and concealment? How can we think that such a frightening tomb can enable long-term planning and redemption?

In the light of new research, we now have a new responsibility. As beings capable of understanding what harms the society, we are responsible for ensuring that those who are deprived of their spatial freedoms can be allowed to rehabilitate themselves and rejoin society, as well as themselves.

And even if we refuse to empathize with other people’s situation, we should always bear in mind that none of us can ever be sure that we can avoid prison entirely. Today, less than ever.

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Antonio Sorrentino
Image: Archive of Antonio Sorrentino

Antonio Sorrentino is an Architect, Architecture PhD student (Architettura. Teorie e Progetto) at the University of Rome Sapienza and teaching assistant at the Faculty of Architecture of the Politecnico in Turin. Graduated in Architectural and Construction Techniques and in Architectural and Urban Design at Sapienza with the thesis Designign prisons and judicial psychiatric hospitals. In 2018, he obtained the Naad – Neuroscience applied to Architectural Design – International Master, at the IUAV and exhibited his thesis, The soft complexities of neuro-architecture. A unifying and interdisciplinary vision of neuro-phenomenological approach to architectural design – The design of prisons, at the 16th edition of the Biennale of Architecture in Venice.


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