More 'Big Brother' than 'Porridge'. Welcome to the 21st-century prison

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The Independent Online

The director of Britain's prisons, Martin Narey, and Home Office minister Hilary Benn are backing a plan to revolutionise the design of jails, swapping austere cells in huge blocks for en suite rooms in houses with kitchens, gardens and personal computers.

The design has more in common with Big Brother than Porridge and will be launched next week in an attempt to slash re-offending to a quarter of today's rates.

Architects and educationalists advising the Prison Service are proposing to scrap more than 200 years of prison design to adopt a model which will house inmates in individual three-storey houses with rooms for 36 people in each. Prisoners will learn, eat and often work in the units for the majority of the day and will join the rest of the prison population for just a few hours. Each house will have its own secure garden and single-person cells will be equipped with computers and en suite toilets and showers.

The rooms will be arranged around a daylit courtyard with educational, dining and gym facilities at ground level. The design will apply to all categories of prisoner and not just the least violent.

It marks a radical departure from the late 18th-century prison design inspired by Jeremy Bentham and architect William Blackburn which is still in use at prisons such as HMP Pentonville, where more than 200 prisoners can be housed on a single wing radiating from a central surveillance rotunda.

"Nobody has looked at the connection between architecture and the system in 200 years," said the project's director at The Do Tank, Hilary Cottam. "We have a massive building programme in prisons today – the biggest since the Second World War – and we have to create 12,000 new places over the next two to three years. It seems mad to me to replicate 19th-century models and lock prisoners up with nothing to do all day. We need to reduce re-offending and living, working and learning in a small community is a proven way to do it."

If the new proposal is implemented, prisoners inside each house will be bombarded with education, with lessons streamed through personal computers to counter the fact that 60 per cent of prisoners are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Prisoners will be able to email probation staff, run online banking with prison credits and have some contact with family – all in an effort to prepare them for the outside world. In each complex of houses, one or two will be located just outside the prison wall for prisoners coming to the end of their terms.

It is a "unique and refreshing" approach according to Martin Narey, who has called on prison managers to "consider the innovative ideas presented here and how we move forward in making the prisons of the 21st century humane, constructive and stimulating places".

With six out of 10 prisoners re-offending within two years, the Home Office has also thrown its weight behind the radical design solution. Prisons minister Hilary Benn said: "A radical new prison environment could lead to a radical new way of thinking about the way in which we approach learning and education in the prison."

The designers believe having classrooms, gyms and computers in each house will also save money spent on security and free up funds for rehabilitation. Today, 80 per cent of prison resources are spent on security and 20 per cent on rehabilitation. They believe this can be reversed, because less staff time will be spent shuttling prisoners across the grounds, going through security checks.

The new design packs more accommodation into the same space as traditional prisons, which would allow the Home Office to sell off valuable property close to town centres. In January, the Home Office recommended that the Prison Service should sell off some Victorian prisons to make way for purpose-built structures. The proposal comes as the Home Office prepares to spend £250m on new prison construction in the next year.