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Up in the clouds: transforming prison education with clever design

A new education model for inmates in New South Wales prisons.

Inmates learning at the Intensive Learning Centre in New South Wales

Inmates learning at the Intensive Learning Centre in New South Wales. Photo courtesy of the Centre for Designing Out Crime

Dr Rohan Lulham

Funding partner
Corrective Services NSW, Department of Justice

Designing Out Crime collaborators:
Douglas Tomkin (Industrial design)
Kevin Bradley (Architecture)
Tasman Munro (Industrial design)
Lucy Klippan (Graphic design)

In summary

  • The development of an Intensive Learning Centre in a NSW prison called on the trans-disciplinary design expertise of the UTS Designing Out Crime research centre.
  • The centre supports inmates to undertake general education courses in an environment that champions the values of connection and inclusion.
  • Inmates, teachers and prison staff overwhelmingly agree that the new centre successfully supports learning.

Designing learning spaces for inmates

Human-centred design has the power to create change in people, behaviours and social systems, even in seemingly unlikely places. A human-centred research project from the UTS Centre for Designing Out Crime (DOC) is transforming the education experience of inmates at a maximum-security prison in New South Wales.

In partnership with Corrective Services NSW, the DOC team has developed and delivered an innovative learning environment for 40 inmates. The centre supports inmates to undertake general education courses, gaining skills that help them complete other prison programs and gain employment upon release.

“Many of these inmates had poor achievement and experiences at school, and most prison education facilities feel like a primary school,” says Dr Rohan Lulham, the DOC project lead.

“This project was about trying to create a space that supported inmate learners to transform how they viewed themselves and their future opportunities."

The Frame Creation model in action

The design of the ILC called on the architectural, environmental psychology, industrial design and visual communications expertise of the DOC team, who came together to create everything from the building design to the furniture housed in the space. It also referenced the Frame Creation model, an innovation-centred approach to problem solving developed by DAB Professor Kees Dorst.

The Frame Creation model enables designers to ‘reframe’ existing problems in new and creative ways.

“One of the frames we used was ‘community’, which allowed us to think about different levels of community, trying to create community at an individual level, among peers, class groups, the ILC and then within the prison and beyond, into the broader community,” Dr Lulham says.

This commitment to community was reflected in the design development process, which sought input from prison teaching staff, inmates, prison management and security as to how education services within the prison system could be improved.

Classroom at the Intensive Learning Centre in New South Wales

Classroom at the Intensive Learning Centre. Photo courtesy of the Centre for Designing Out Crime

Connectivity, inclusivity, flexibility

The resulting ILC was based on themes of connection and inclusion, which fostered group learning, and called heavily on a metaphor of clouds as symbols of limitless knowledge to inform the design. A curved, sloped roof provided a view of the sky.

The centre opened in April 2014 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. A post-occupancy survey showed that the majority of inmate learners, teachers and prison staff all agreed that the design successfully supported learning. They also believed that the classroom was a comfortable and positive space, that the embedded technology created opportunities for learning and engagement, and that the outdoor space was a relaxed and sensory space in contrast to the rest of the prison.

The view from the inside

For Fiona McGregor, the Senior Project Officer for Education, Development and Innovation at Corrective Services NSW during the project, the outcomes of the ILC far exceeded the original brief.

“What [the DOC team] were able to produce in terms of a concrete visualisation of the brief and my wishlist was quite incredible,” she says.

“I think without their expertise and input, we would have got the same formulaic building by numbers that’s really about economics rather than intentional design.”

View from inside the Intensive Learning Centre in a NSW prison

View from inside the Intensive Learning Centre in prison. Photo courtesy of the Centre for Designing Out Crime

Publication details

Lulham, R & Klippan, L (2016) ‘From expected reoffender to trusted neighbour: why we should rethink our prisons’, The Conversation

Lulham, R., Tomkin, D., Grant, L. & Jewkes, Y. 2016, “The risk of 'a cold conservatism' in correctional facility design: the case for design innovation”, Advancing Corrections, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-12.

Dorst, K., Kaldor L., Klippan, L., Watson, R., et al. (2016) Designing for the common good, BIS Publishers, Amsterdam

Munro, T., Tomkin, D., Lulham, R., Bradley, K. & Kashyap, K. 2015, 'Evaluating a new high security teaching environment', The Pen, the Hammer or the Mouse: Addressing recidivism through education.' Australasian Corrections Education Association Conference, Australasian Corrections Education Association, Hobart.

Lulham, R. , Munro, T Bradley, K., Tomkin, D., Wong, J. & Kashyap, K. University of Technology Sydney 2015, Intensive Learning Centre building evaluation, University of Technology Sydney & Corrective Services NSW partnership project, no. 3, pp. 1-63, University of Technology Sydney.

Bradley, K., Munro, T., Lulham, R., Tomkin, D., Klippan, L & McGregor, F. University of Technology Sydney 2012, Intensive Learning Centre Concept Report, University of Technology and Corrective Services NSW partnership project, no. 1, pp. 1-37, Designing out Crime research centre, University of Technology Sydney.