Gild your own cage

Asking inmates to design their fantasy prison has produced some innovative results

You might think that asking inmates to design their own prison would invite a list of "improvements" such as paper cell doors and multiple escape ladders. But "Creative Prisons", an exhibition at the Architecture Foundation, showcases the more measured outcome of a collaboration between the architect Will Alsop and the prisoners at HMP Gartree. It shows innovative thinking around the problem of how to deal with the growing numbers that our justice system incarcerates each year, and imagines a complete overhaul of how we look at housing convicts.

Such changes would entail a transformation of how the outside world interacts with the prison population, by placing the emphasis of justice firmly on rehabilitation and education.

The project was initiated by Rideout, a prison-reform arts group, which convinced Alsop that new thinking on jail design was urgently needed. "I said I would do it only if I could work with some prisoners," he says. "You have to involve the community in any project and, in this case, that is who the community is."

Alsop came up with a fictional prison, drawing on the prisoners' ideas as well as successful real-life schemes from around the country. The group named this imaginary place HMP Paterson, after the reforming pre-Second World War commissioner of prisons Alexander Paterson, and worked from the assumption that inmates would be from the "super-enhanced" category C - those who had earned trust and privileges. Any transgression of Paterson's rules would result in a return to a normal, Victorian-style building.

Alsop's designs move as far away from the conventional notion of a jail as possible. He has replaced the usual large, interconnected blocks of cells with small, brightly coloured units - the layout is shown in a sculpture built by prisoners, as well as in computer-generated models displayed around the gallery. The idea is as practical as it is aesthetic, allowing inmates to live in clusters of between 12 and 15. In a bold break with present practice, the inmates themselves would be able to control how long they spent in their cells at the end of a day of work or training. "You are locked in the block, not the cell," says Alsop. "You give the prisoner the key so they can lock themselves in if they wish. The biggest threat to them is being attacked by other prisoners."

Smaller accommodation blocks are just one of the innovations reflected in the artworks and notes by prisoners and staff from Gartree, which take up one side of the gallery. The series of unedited doodles and paintings makes for fascinating viewing. Some of the more outlandish ideas on display include a plan for a skateboard park inside the prison, and various schemes for installing giant speaker systems. Most of the annotated diagrams and drawings, however, relate to the idea of bringing in more air and light. Prison cells are often poorly ventilated, leaving them unbearably hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. Their plastic security windows are susceptible to sand-etching; consequently, the view out is often a dim, fogged blur.

Visitor facilities are another aspect of life that comes up repeatedly in the exhibition. One ingenious inmate suggested running a photographic studio in the visitors' room, so that prisoners could take pictures with their families against various scenic backdrops. This would foster family cohesion and provide inmates' children with a picture that they can show friends, rather than a grim snap of their father in a strip-lit reception room.

In another subversive nod to the spirit of re integration with the outside world, Alsop's campus-style layout would allow for people living in the prison environs to share its facilities. A swimming pool, for example, straddles the jail wall. Cameras, tags and heat-sensing equipment would work in tandem with security barriers to protect the community, while eliminating the need for a fortress-style wall. "One prisoner said that he lived on the top floor and he was embarrassed when he could see people driving by," Alsop says. "So I thought: 'Why does it have to look like a prison, with that big wall?'"

HMP Paterson is unlikely to be built in the near future. However, Home Office officials would do well to visit this exhibition, if only to seek ideas for the round of prison-building schemes that seems inevitable. Alsop's work shows that a humane rehabilitative environment can be safe and efficient, yet need not mar the landscape in which it is located.

"The Creative Prison" is at the Yard Gallery of the Architecture Foundation, London EC1, until 16 February.

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide