The architecture of prisons has historically been monumentally symbolic – if a city’s cathedral was its trailer for the forthcoming feature of heaven, its prison was an introduction to hell.

In the eighteenth century, Europe’s greatest architects were busy designing grand, ominous prisons. George Dance gave Newgate a menacing austerity while Charles Barry, architect of the Palace of Westminster, applied a gothic darkness to the walls of Pentonville.

The French Revolution also threw up some extraordinary, visionary designs – rational reactions to the inhumanity of the Bastille – while in the US, Philadelphia’s immense, fortress-like Eastern State Penitentiary by John Haviland dominated the city.

The new generation of Titan prisons look unlikely to be designed by great architects but are more likely to resemble US super-prisons. While many Victorian prisons were close to city centres or at least railways, super-prisons tend to be isolated, often not practicable to families.

The other problem is that they are almost certain to be procured through the private finance initiative, which has had a catastrophic effect on the quality of civic architecture. In PFI cost is everything.

The most famous of all ideas in prison architecture was conceived not by an architect but by Jeremy Bentham. The father of utilitarianism invented the “panopticon” in 1785, a prison with wings radiating from a central pavilion from which a single warder can keep in view every corridor and every cell door – the model on which all prisons were based until the twentieth century.

Over the last century the conception of the prison has morphed from punishment to rehabilitation but though prisons have begun to appear less austere, they are rarely nicer.

Architecture has fallen off the agenda. The irony though is that some modern prisons are hardly more humane than their Victorian forebears – the problems of which come as much from overcrowding as from the grim aesthetic.

One of the few alternative proposals has come from Will Alsop, the architect behind Peckham Library and the idea that Barnsley could be reinvented as a Tuscan hill town.

Alsop was commissioned by the radical arts trust Rideout (Creative Arts For Rehabilitation) to rethink prison architecture. Working with long-term prisoners at HMP Gartree, his extraordinary proposals are less fanciful than they might seem. A landscape of individual towers each houses 12-15 prisoners – a more intimate unit than the traditional blocks of about 100 but also less likely to cause serious riots. Each cell has windows and a proper view and the blocks have access to a garden.

Alsop’s priorities are on rehabilitation. With a 67 per cent reoffending rate, the existing prisons are clearly not working. Surely a little extra expense, if it could change things, could be justified?

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