Being able to watch the seasons change without bars in front of your window is not something you normally expect as an inmate, nor to be able to play sports or eat a meal together with your prison guard. Nonetheless, this is exactly what life is like behind the 20″ wall surrounding Halden prison in Norway.
Designing a Prison
Erik Møller Arkitekter (EMA) designed Halden prison as state of the art having regard to legislation and human rights. When taking on the task of designing the prison, EMA went about it as they would any other project. “As architects we have high standards concerning the quality of life for the human beings in the buildings. When we design, for example, a school, our approach is to create an environment within the school that works and respects the children as well as the teachers. Working with the functionality we try to include as many needs, of the children, the teachers and other employees, in order to obtain the best result. Designing a prison is basically based on the same terms,” explains EMA Partner Rikke Hansen. The team behind the project did, however, take extra consideration and investigated the way a prison works as an institution, EMA Partner Arne Vejbæk describes their approach: “detention is a punishment in itself, and the prison environment should be supportive in order to prepare inmates for a life outside prison”.
Halden prison was to seem as non-institutional as possible. Located in a beautiful setting in a forest in southern Norway, which was left almost untouched, the building became a part of the surrounding landscape. From the window of each cell, which does not have bars, the prisoners have a view of the landscape, making it possible for them to watch the seasons change as you would in the outside world allowing nature to contribute to the inmate’s rehabilitation.
From the 18th Century to the 21st
At the end of the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham presented the Panopticon, which was based on the concept of a circular prison where one person – the watchman would observe inmates from his ‘inspection house’ in the centre. The inmates could never tell who the watchman was observing “you will please to observe, that though perhaps it is the most important point, that the persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least of great chance of being so”, explained Bentham. It is a theory that today is still relevant for discussion, as societies become increasingly monitored via surveillance cameras in public spaces, making the principles behind Halden prison even more interesting. In a world where we are constantly monitored, and rehabilitation is looked upon as unlikely as long as prisons ‘grind’ down their inmates, the approach of a more humane prison is interesting. EMA sees the loss of liberty as a punishment in itself.
”A prison is a kind of ideal model in which the convicted can frame their own identity in order to return to society, being given another chance to sort out their life”, says EMA Partner Arne Vejbæk.
Given Norway’s reoffending rate of 30 %, which is the lowest in Europe, the concept of building the world’s most humane prison using architecture as a means to rehabilitation seems to be working.