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What Can the U.S. Learn From This Humane Danish Prison?

Is C. F. Møller’s design for a modern, light-filled state prison offers a “sense of dialogue with the outside world.”

Scandinavian giants C. F. Møller Architects won a competition to design a new Danish state prison — though from the sound of things, they might as well be building a Club Med. Consider this project description, from partner Mads Mandrup:

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In the centre are an administration building, an occupation building and a cultural centre with library, religious worship room, sports facilities and a shop.

Also:

Each individual building in the total complex has its own identity. …Variation is provided by, amongst other things, the occupation building, which is crystal-shaped and faced with perforated metal plates in green shades, and the cultural centre, which is round, covered with glass and ringed by green slats.

And:

With its corners and variations, the six-metre tall, star-shaped perimeter wall creates a dynamic sequence which gives a less restrictive appearance by providing a sense of dialogue with the outside world.

“Identity?” ‘Variation?’ A “sense of dialogue with the outside world?” Gawd, we wish the architects who’d built our elementary school had been this thoughtful. The prison even has a sweeping outdoor area for inmates to tend livestock.

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But it’s hardly a rarity in Scandinavia. Back in March, we told you about a luxurious new prison in Norway, complete with private bathrooms and flat-screen TVs. And in Denmark, prisons are designed to feel like home (albeit a home with cameras everywhere). The New Statesman reported on one facility in Funen, a Danish island, in which inmates share small living units, grocery shop, and cook for themselves in communal kitchens; if they’re married, they can shack up with their wives and young children in a designated wing. It’s not as preposterous as it sounds: studies show that the more you replicate life outside prison, the lower your recidivism rates.

It’ll take a long time (and many liberal presidents) before the United States starts treating prisoners like the Danes do: as a social, not an individual, problem. Until then, wouldn’t it make sense for the U.S. — the incarceration capital of the world — to import some of their design ideas? OK, maybe not flatscreens in every room, but natural light and lots of outdoor space? Those aren’t luxuries; they’re just humane.

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[Images courtesy of C. F. MøllerArchitects]

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D

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