Re-thinking inside the box

Concept design by Kevin Bradley

Concept design by Kevin Bradley

In summary: 
  • Since 2012, the Designing Out Crime Research Centre has been collaborating with the NSW Government to re-think and re-design the state’s prisons
  • Recent evaluations of the Intensive Learning Centre (ILC) at Kempsey’s Mid North Coast Correctional Centre reveal that among the first two cohorts of students, 80 per cent have graduated with a nationally recognised certificate

Separate, contain, restrict: those have, traditionally, been the aims of prison construction. But not anymore. Since 2012, the Designing Out Crime Research Centre has been collaborating with the NSW Government to re-think and re-design the state’s prisons. The partnership aims to not only decrease the rate of re-offending, but improve safety in the community too.

“Educational attainment among the prison population arguably falls short of the minimum standard required for opportunity, self-determination and meaningful participation in society,” asserts environmental psychologist and Research Fellow in the Designing Out Crime Research Centre (DOC) Rohan Lulham.

Rohan Lulham. Photo by: Shane Lo Rohan Lulham. Photo by: Shane Lo

In fact, studies conducted in NSW prisons have found approximately 70 per cent of assessed inmates had reading skills below Year 10 level and 90 per cent had writing and numeracy skills below Year 10 level. 

But, Lulham says, “Research has also shown the introduction of intensive, skills-based education is an effective way to reduce re-offending.” 

That’s one of the reasons why, in 2012, Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW) approached DOC to investigate how spaces within maximum security prisons could be re-designed to support transformative learning. 

Keen to take on the challenge, Lulham established a multi-disciplinary team with his DOC colleagues – designers Tasman Munro, Douglas Tomkin and Lucy Klippan, architect Kevin Bradley and educator Fiona MacGregor. It’s the first time such a collaboration has taken place in Australia or overseas.

Using design thinking and other evidence-based innovation methodologies, Lulham’s team worked with prison staff, inmates and management to better understand their needs and make use of their expertise.

The result is the Intensive Learning Centre (ILC), which opened at Kempsey’s Mid North Coast Correctional Centre in April 2014.

The Intensive Learning Centre (ILC) at Mid North Coast Correctional Centre. Supplied by: Corrective Services NSW The Intensive Learning Centre (ILC) at Mid North Coast Correctional Centre. Supplied by: Corrective Services NSW

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” says Lulham. “The environment surrounding inmates is incredibly important because it can have an effect on how the inmates relate to each other and the activity at hand.

“The Intensive Learning Centre has a residential feel to it. It has four classrooms filled with natural light, a library, amenity area, staff office and modern, landscaped grounds.”

In addition to the standard security features you’d expect to see in a maximum security prison, the ILC also includes flexible classrooms that can be made larger or smaller depending on the audience and activity; integrated technology like smartboards, laptops and audio visual equipment; interchangeable art panels enabling each cohort to build ownership and connection with their environment; interlinked indoor and outdoor spaces; and specially designed spaces that support Aboriginal learning pedagogies and cross-cultural discussions.

The Intensive Learning Centre (ILC) at Mid North Coast Correctional Centre. Photo by: Kevin Bradley The Intensive Learning Centre (ILC) at Mid North Coast Correctional Centre. Photo by: Kevin Bradley

The centre’s aim is to improve the education of inmates so that, upon release, they are more employable and better prepared to complete the prison programs that treat the causes of their offending. (Currently, approximately 48 per cent of inmates in NSW prisons will re-offend within two years of their release.)

The development of the ILC, though, has been a learning experience in more ways than one. 

“Not only were the staff included in the facility design process, but the inmates built the facilities and furniture from scratch,” explains Lulham.
    
In fact, the classroom modules and furniture were constructed by inmates in the building construction program at St Heliers Correctional Centre in Muswellbrook before being trucked 370-odd kilometres to Kempsey, “hoisted over the fence” and fixed in place.

Says Lulham, "Inmates did something that interested them, contributed to the functionality of the prison itself and now they can reap the benefits.”

Inside the Intensive Learning Centre (ILC) at Mid North Coast Correctional Centre. Photo by: Tasman Monro Inside the Intensive Learning Centre (ILC) at Mid North Coast Correctional Centre. Photo by: Tasman Monro

Already, the results are impressive. “In a recent evaluation, 72 per cent of inmates reported the ILC design made it easier to learn, while 80 per cent of teachers indicated the design made engaging inmates easier,” says Lulham.

Anecdotally, among the first two cohorts of students, 80 per cent have graduated with a nationally recognised certificate. (The average for other prison education programs sits at around 30 per cent.) 

“It’s been a unique collaborative project,” says Lulham. “Corrective Services NSW brought the knowledge, pragmatism and passion of practice, Designing Out Crime the innovation, energy and collaborative expertise of design and design thinking.”

And already, CSNSW and DOC have begun work on other projects, including the development of a modular, prefabricated housing system for Corrective Services Industries in remote Indigenous communities. 

The work has also led to other opportunities for DOC. They have been working with teams across Australia and internationally developing an online resource to promote excellence and innovation in correctional facility design; writing a guide for prison administrators designing new correctional facilities; developing environmental standards and design guidelines for audio visual link suites used in juvenile and adult prisons in NSW; and experimenting, testing and documenting the application of design innovation methods used in the construction of the New Grafton Correctional Centre.

Lulham says research into the long-term impacts of the ILC will also continue. “The overarching objective of this collaboration is to reduce crime and create safer communities in NSW. 

“My ultimate ambition is for all prisons to practice better design that creates opportunities for inmates to transform because in just a few years most of them will be part of our community. It seems counter-productive for a society to do otherwise.”