Institutional design and the search for justice
It’s an ongoing debate that strikes at the heart of contemporary ideas about justice – should prisons be rehabilitative, or should they be punitive? What sort of outcomes should we, as the public, expect for prisoners once they’ve served their time? For Kevin Bradley, the answer to these questions are buried deep in the field of architectural design.
A PhD student in the UTS School of the Built Environment, Bradley is exploring the impact of prison design on inmates and society at large. Specifically, he’s interested in whether the design of prison environments can help inmates maintain the responsibilities of being active citizens, and the impact of that design on public perceptions of just punishment.
“The background of the research is looking at the design of prisons through the lens of citizenship. Its hypothesis is that the institutionalised forms of architecture within a prison takes away the sense of citizenship for the people who go there, but who are expected to operate as functioning citizens when they exit,” Bradley says.
“It also questions the notion of what is 'just punishment'. What should a prison look like if it has this purpose of punishment that will both satisfy the settling of the wrongs to society whilst affording the individual dignity? This is the nature of the research – architecture engaging with the social contract.”
Every single inmate I spoke to understood their position and they had to pay a debt, and all they wanted to do was get on with their lives and do their time – but do it purposefully.
Now in the second year of his PhD, Bradley has recently completed a series of interviews with inmates and staff at three prisons in New South Wales to try and understand how architecture informs their experience of carceral environments. The research responds to a growing recognition that the voice of those that spend their days in prison environments is missing in architectural research around these spaces.
And the results have been surprising – while his initial expectation was that inmates would crave design approaches that allow them to have a constant active connection to the outside world, it turned out that the opposite was true.
“Every single inmate I spoke to totally understood their position and understood that they had wronged society and they had to pay a debt, and all they wanted to do was get on with their lives and do their time – but do it purposefully,” Bradley says.
“They wanted to be internally focused, but they wanted to be productive. The worst thing that they felt they could do was just to sit there, do nothing and rot away – they didn’t want to be distracted by having pretty views of mountains in the distance.”
At the other end of the project, Bradley is engaging with external stakeholders to try and understand the concerns of the community when it comes to prison design as part of a broader mechanism for achieving justice.
This component of the research is still being developed, but thus far Bradley believes that the external stakeholders were more open to the idea of a connection between inmates and the world beyond the prison’s walls.
“Among the external stakeholders, there was more openness in thinking that the prison would benefit from interaction with society for the rehabilitation of inmates. In contrast it was the inmates and staff who all preferred the focus that comes with a closed/defined prison environment,” he says.
The end result of Bradley’s research will be a design proposal that challenges stakeholders – policymakers, people involved with the design and day-to-day administration of prisons, inmates and prison staff, as well as the general public – to think about new ways of looking at the prison environment through the medium of design.
I’m interested in the power and capacity of design to make change.
The PhD isn’t his first foray into the architecture of penal institutions. A licensed architect, he’s spent six years as a research consultant with the UTS Designing Out Crime research centre. Along with his colleagues, he worked on a range of industry research projects that used design to combat crime and recidivism.
But engaging with a PhD was a deliberate decision, he says – one that allowed him to circumnavigate the challenges that come along with commercial design projects in an area as politically charged as the justice sector.
“Because of the social and political and commercial tensions that exist out there in society, the PhD was the perfect vehicle to explore the issue and come to pure outcomes without any influence,” Bradley says.
“I’m also interested in the power and capacity of design to make change, so it was was a combination of those things.”
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