Yvonne Jewkes on Envisioning ‘Architecture of Hope’ For Prisons

Annotating Criminology
5 min readJan 21, 2021
Yvonne Jewkes

“When a prison communicates positive attributes, the design challenges the cultural stereotype of what a prison is — and through this — who prisoners are, and it becomes considerably harder to hold the view that prisoners ‘deserve’ to be held in brutal conditions.”

In Just Designs, Yvonne Jewkes envisions both the meaning and possibilities of incorporating the philosophy underpinning the concept of ‘Architecture of Hope’ in designing prisons. While arguing that the architectural design of institutional places has a psychological and physiological impact on those who inhabit them, Jewkes explores how penal aesthetics can assist in the rehabilitative role of penal institutions.

The concept of ‘Architecture of Hope’ emanates from the blueprint designed by a cancer patient Maggie Keswick, who found designs of conventional hospitals as ‘alienating’, inducing the feeling of ‘worthlessness’. Keswick’s blueprint, which became a guiding brief for designing many more Maggie’s Centres in the UK, is founded upon the following architectural qualities: light, space, openness, intimacy, views, connectedness to nature and domestic in space and feeling.

Jewkes begins by distinguishing between the ‘architecture of harm’ and the ‘architecture of hope’. She premises her analysis on the understanding of architecture as an activity, a verb not a noun, which means to construct both a building and a personality. Drawing from Mayer Spivack’s work on Institutional Settings, Jewkes highlights the ‘affective dimensions’ of conventional penal aesthetics:

‘So, ‘hard architecture’ (bars on windows, concrete walls, hard-surface floors, drab colours, indestructible and uncomfortable furniture) not only destroys the prisoner’s (or patient’s) self-esteem and influences the ways in which staff think of and behave towards the people in their custody and care but may also determine certain types of identity and behaviour.’

Jewkes further points out that one of the problems with the contemporary architectural practices on prison designs is the invisibility of the narratives of serving prisoners:

‘One of the limiting factors in contemporary prison design is that architects rarely if ever, consult with serving prisoners during a prison design process about even the practicalities of what works in design and what does not, let alone about the extent to which the design of the building(s) they are confined in inhibit or nurture their personalities and self.’

She further submits that the architectural practice of ‘empathetic design’, whereby designs are sourced from the process where the architect either envisions himself or his family living in the projected facility, just doesn’t apply to prison design for obvious reasons. As architects cannot imagine anyone in their family living in a prison, their designs are heavily informed by older designs. Influence of older designs, lack of end-user engagements, negative representations in media and popular culture, and policy briefs given to architects, have ensured that the prison designs remain committed to the architecture of harm:

‘The consequences of all these inhibitors to empathetic design are that prison spaces are commonly generative of only negative meanings, anchoring the ‘prisoner’ in dis- courses of otherness and punitive punishment.’

Jewkes then shifts her attention to what she calls the political economy of prison designs. She believes that one of the very few differences between the correctional facilities of today and those of the Victorian age is that the former have increased to ‘super-size’ proportions to serve the growing numbers of the incarcerated population. While arguing that the prison designs have fallen back to the ‘Panopticon style blocks’, Jewkes submits that:

‘All too often, then, politicians and policymakers have fallen back on the belief that the heavily surveilled, ‘rack ’em and stack ‘em’ warehousing model is not only the most effective way of maintaining order and control but that it satisfies public demands for tougher responses to crime, thus garnering votes at election times. Additionally, as the political rhetoric would have it, prisons must punish as well as rehabilitate.’

While reiterating that correctional facilities can’t be divorced from their political economy context, Jewkes provides a moral and ethical critique of concepts such as ‘rapid prisons’, ‘future-proofing’, and ‘value-engineering’ that inform the prevailing policy discourse on prison designs:

‘The ethics and morality of holding prisoners in over-securitised conditions for the level of risk they pose is not a matter of public discussion or debate; in fact, many politicians and other stake-holders congratulate themselves on the contemporary aesthetics of punishment, using phrases like ‘modern’ and ‘fit-for-purpose’ to describe the feelings of order and control that are generated through sensual disengagement and an often-brutal deployment of scale.’

In the backdrop of a prevailing disjuncture between the architectural vocabulary and the lived experience of prisoners, Jewkes poses a serious question:

‘… should prison architects not purposefully design buildings that help those whose self or personhood is diminished by their circumstances to feel like agentic people with more to their identity than the label ‘prisoner’?

Jewkes research identified certain basic environmental factors that are universally desired by people in custody:

a need for privacy; for socialisation; for warmth when it is cold and for effective ventilation when it is hot; for some freedom of movement outside as well as inside; for regular, high-quality family visits; for meaningful and appropriately paid work/education/activities (including essential transferable skills, e.g. use of digital technologies); the ability to undertake a pastime or hobby beyond those traditionally permitted within custodial settings; facilities to cook one’s own food (and perhaps for one’s family) at least occasionally and to experience some interaction with nature (‘to feel the grass under my feet’, ‘to not just be able to see a tree, but touch it’, are frequently expressed wishes) and, crucially, to have a high degree of choice, autonomy and control over all these fundamental actions

Jewkes submits that prisons in the Anglophone nations lack some of these environmental factors which make them ‘barren’ environments that break people in custody instead of allowing them to flourish.

While reiterating that the architectural designs of institutions communicate meanings that are then interpreted by those who occupy them, Jewkes submits that instilling architecture of hope in penal aesthetics would be beneficial not just for the rehabilitation of prisoners, but would also serve the interests of the prison staff:

‘The parallels with prison officers and other staff working in prisons are obvious. If prison architects design high-quality facilities for staff — working spaces where they feel safe and able to exercise their power, interpersonal skills and discretion appropriately; airy and pleasant eating and relaxation facilities, preferably with outside areas; sufficient shower and changing facilities for males and females; even adequate parking spaces, close to their place of work — a prison is more likely to have a happy and motivated workforce who feel invested in and valued as the considerable assets they are.’

Jewkes believes that the idea of a ‘good prison design’ is fraught with political minefields, but it shouldn’t be conflated as an argument in favour of creating ‘prettier’ or ‘softer’ prisons to counteract deincarceration:

‘In jurisdictions across the world, prisons are designed to be hard, restrictive and ugly, and their design supports a view of the ‘prisoner’ as dangerous ‘others’ — why else would these people be put in such a bad environment? However, when a prison communicates positive attributes, the design challenges the cultural stereotype of what a prison is — and through this — who prisoners are, and it becomes considerably harder to hold the view that prisoners ‘deserve’ to be held in brutal conditions.’

Complement this Jewkes earlier work with Dominique Moran on Prison Architecture and Design, and Daniel Ledford on Psychology of Space.

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Annotating Criminology

I’m Karan Tripathi, a researcher, writer, and this is my one man labour of love exploring Criminology & Penology