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Beyond the Prison Bars: Rehabilitation and the Urban Prison

Part 2 Project 2010
Sophie Hamilton-Grey
Robert Burke
Justin Johnston
University of Liverpool, UK
The Urban Prison is our architectural thesis project considering prison function, design and purpose. We saw the thesis not as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but a chance to explore current political issues that we identified as relevant to both the architectural profession and society as a whole.

In choosing prison as a building typology, we wanted to explore an alternative solution to the current system, which is widely regarded as a system of failure. Our starting point was to question the function of prison. ‘What do we expect from our prisons: are they a place to punish or reform behaviour?’ Thorough research led us to believe that rehabilitation is ultimately more successful and beneficial to society than punishment. At the core of our proposal is the affirmation that prison should provide a safe, humane and rehabilitative environment, while at the same time enriching the urban fabric of our cities. The placement of the prison, therefore, should be both physically and symbolically, within the heart of civic life.

This assertion lead us to choose a controversial but promising site that had the potential to fulfil the requirements of our brief. St John’s Precinct in Liverpool city centre is ear-marked for regeneration and is close to all major transport links and, ultimately, civic organisations.

Our aim is to provide a clear sense of progression through the prison, manifested both in terms of the architecture and activities. The accommodation is divided into 5 categories, ranging from high risk inmates to those recently released from prison residing within temporary ‘half-way’ accommodation. In line with the training and work programs critical to our scheme, prisoners at later stages of their sentence have the opportunity to enjoy privileges such as conjugal visits and family stays. Furthermore, they can become part of the workforce providing goods and services to the community. Prisoners would learn a trade whilst the public would enjoy goods at reduced prices with potential to generate charity funding. Other facilities would be available to prisoners throughout their term such as counselling, education, allotments and workshops.

Sophie Hamilton-Grey
Robert Burke
Justin Johnston

This thesis project was developed out of a strong desire by the group to tackle a difficult and unfriendly subject head on, rather than dabble in generic and photogenic typographies.

The project is underpinned by layered research – a journey which could have continued indefinitely, but did lead into a conceptual architectural language and exploration of key underlying issues in the current prison system.

Set against the backdrop of a city currently using retail as a regeneration tool, the concept of a dilapidated but very central existing retail site for a prison provided the group with a complex series of issues.

The proposal was never intended to form a blueprint solution for the prisons crisis – the relationships between the prisoner and the public were of more importance (together with the internal system of circulation linked to integration and rehabilitation). By inverting the current philosophy of physical and visual isolation the project begins to provoke the standard response to prisons (and prisoner “punishment”) that perhaps we all carry at some level. Given the current political sensitivities over the expanding prison population and crumbling infrastructure, the project has not gone unnoticed at a regional and national level.

It was refreshing to tutor a project that relied less on aesthetics than on careful examination of social theories and an area of study that has often been overlooked by architects. It has provoked many responses and heated arguments, which for me is a fine measure of an intelligent body of work.


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