Prison design is complex. The research completed by Beijersbergen and her associates can eliminate some debates among design team members about ways to smooth prisoner/guard interactions, however.
As the researchers detail, “Relationships between correctional officers and prisoners are crucial to life in prison, and affect prison order and prisoners’ well-being.” By interviewing and surveying prisoners in Dutch jails awaiting trial, the Beijersbergen team determined that “Prisoners in panopticon layouts were less positive than prisoners in other layouts [about their relationship with prison officers]. In addition, prisoners housed in older units . . . were less positive about officer–prisoner interactions.” In the panopticon and older units there is more physical distance between guards and prisoners than in newer Dutch prisons, guards are responsible for supervising relatively larger numbers of prisoners than in newer Dutch prisons, and, in many cases, prisoners are housed alone, without ready social access to other prisoners. In the newer prisons where data were collected, areas housing prisoners were often designed with a small number of private cells adjacent to a common area shared by a few prisoners.
It’s important to note that “Dutch prisons do not face major overcrowding or understaffing, prisoners do not have to wear a prison uniform, and officer–prisoner relationships are generally characterized as informal and supportive.”
The researchers conclude that “These results seem to corroborate the philosophy of American ‘new generation prisons,’ which argues that correctional facilities with a campus layout consisting of small units . . . can have a positive impact on staff–prisoner relationships.”
In general, this research supports designing spaces (of all types) to facilitate social interaction among individuals, while providing opportunities for privacy, when desired.
Richard Wener has written an excellent book on prison design, which is discussed in this Research Design Connections article.
Karin Beijersbergen, Anja Dirkzwager, Peter van der Laan, and Paul Nieuwbeerta. 2014. “A Social Building? Prison Architecture and Staff-Prisoner Relationships.” Crime and Delinquency, in press.