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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Normal or nurturing: what should prison designers aspire to?

Professor Yvonne Jewkes, University of Kent


The word ‘normalisation’ has become ubiquitous in discussions of prison reform. At the recent annual conference of the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA) – a six-day gathering attended largely by managers from the private and public sectors, prison planners, architects and (on this occasion, as it was held in London) senior personnel from HMPPS – it seemed that hardly a paper was given without grand claims being made about custodial environments becoming more ‘normalised’ and therefore, it was said, more likely to rehabilitate offenders. Yet from my observations, many presenters had very limited ideas about what constitutes ‘normal’.  Slide after slide with ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots of prison cells and association rooms, classrooms and exercise yards were produced as proof of a more enlightened approach. But the images displayed could never be mistaken for anything other than a prison. Sure, there was evidence that custodial spaces are brightened considerably by a lick of paint, especially if it comes in a colour that is not magnolia. But long corridors, metal staircases, hard surfaces, bars on windows, clanging doors, jangling keys, and all the other aesthetic and aural cues associated with confinement do not become normal by the addition of a neon orange or lime green ‘accent wall’. Replacing rows of ugly metal seats in a visiting room with rows of ugly plastic seats or upholstered-yet-still-unyielding chairs, with one in each cluster of a different hue to signify that’s where the prisoner must sit, does not make a prison visiting room feel like anything other than what it is.

The prison most commonly cited as the ‘model prison’ for both its architecture and the regime that the design facilitates – both of which are said to be manifestations of the principle of normalisation – is Halden Fengsel, a high-security prison in southern Norway. This famous establishment – the ‘world’s most humane prison’, as Time magazine once described it (,9171,1986002,00.html) – is actually intended to go further than emulating the normal conditions that prisoners might experience in ordinary life. The ambition, according to one of the lead architects from Eric Møller, is to ‘inspire prisoners and motivate them to lead better lives’. Among Halden’s unusual (from an Anglophone perspective) design features are: the forest that encroaches into the prison grounds; the open-plan living/cooking/dining areas that resemble something from the pages of an IKEA catalogue; the comfortable Family House, where prisoners can invite their partners and children to stay overnight; a sophisticated music recording studio; and a tranquil and visually imaginative multi-faith room which encourages calm reflection as well as more formal religious devotion.

Since it opened in April 2010, many other prisons have sought to emulate Halden’s vision, including the brand-new 250-bed high-security Storstrøm Fængsel in Falster, Denmark. In the press pack that accompanied its inauguration in October 2017, lead architect Mads Mandrup Hansen suggests that Storstrøm is a physical manifestation of the Danish post-war welfare model – ‘the dream of a society where everyone has access to the same democratic architecture’. Like Halden, then, Storstrøm is intended to be both familiar and also aspirational. Its living accommodation is particularly innovative and is arguably very ‘normal’ in being not unlike a bedroom in a student hall of residence or budget hotel. While prison cells in other countries are usually standardized and designed to minimum legislative requirements, the architects at C.F. Møller have set out to ‘achieve maximum quality of life in a few square metres of space’, in recognition of the fact that the cell is ‘really the inmate’s home’.  With this in mind, each cell receives daylight from two sides with a small window on one wall and a very large window (full cell height, and bar-less, naturally), with views of the surrounding countryside, on the other side. The cells measure a relatively generous 13 m² and have been designed with a curved wall, in contrast to the usual boxiness of conventional prison accommodation. Clusters of four to seven cells form social communities and prisoners have access to a sitting room and communal kitchen in which they can cook for themselves and are essentially free to determine whether they wish to cook with others or on their own. 

But the problem is, that being incarcerated against one’s will and having one’s movement, behaviour and even thinking coercively controlled is not ‘normal’, and nothing can make it so. Moreover, what is ‘normal’? And who’s ‘normal’ should we aspire to recreate in custodial settings? Several custodial planning and design consultants (frequently ex-prison security managers) have told me that prisoners do not view attractive green spaces as ‘normal’, because they overwhelmingly come from inner cities.  So, they argue, there is no point in planting trees or including gardens and horticulture – prisoners simply won’t know how to respond to beautiful natural environments!

Perhaps, then, we are using the wrong language.  Rather than trying to make prisons ‘normalised’ and ‘rehabilitative’ in the sense of preparing prisoners for their re-entry into society, we should aim to make them humanising and nurturing.  One prison that succeeds in this regard is Norgerhaven, the prison in the Netherlands that is rented to the Norwegian government.  With no ‘treatment’ of any kind on offer (no behavioural or cognitive programmes, no therapy, no education even, beyond basic numeracy and literacy), Norgerhaven certainly cannot be accused of engaging in coercive correction. But what it does have is an interior landscape known as the Park, with picnic tables, benches, racquet sports and, most importantly of all, 54 mature trees.  The environment encourages prisoners to hang out in small groups, chatting, smoking, chilling. It is, then, assuredly normal. But more than that, the landscape at Norgerhaven heals and inspires. As more than one participant in a recent research exercise told me, ‘these trees are powerful’.

Questioning a Norwegian prisoner about whether it was rehabilitative, he expressed refreshing candour, saying that he didn’t know if it was enough to stop him from re-offending in future, but he did know that he had been a serial criminal all his life and had served many sentences in more conventional prisons, none of which had rehabilitated him. Norgerhaven, however, stood a chance, he said, because the focus was not on his past, on what he had done and how he could be ‘fixed’.  Here he could be contemplative and tranquil:


‘My parents like that I’ve grown myself again. This is rehabilitation. No drugs courses. No behaviour courses. Just looking at the trees. I’m better because of the trees. We are punished by being sent here but this is normal and that’s good for everyone’.


Photographs © Torben Eskerod and with thanks to C.F. Møller Architects for permission to use them

logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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