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. www.architecturefoundation.org.uk