Daniel Masterman 

External pressures, particularly in times of economic uncertainty, push institutions into employing new survival tactics in order to remain relevant. These new modes of operation reveal hidden agendas that lie behind an institution’s figurehead-like reputation and stated raison d’etre. Art galleries are beginning to exchange their brands as readily as currencies, whilst cuts in state expenditure result in institutions falling into the hands of corporations with questionable motives. The privatisation of prisons in order to improve their performance has altered the institution’s ideology into one of profit rather than reform. But could the privatisation of such institutions be utilised to create a more beneficial infrastructure for society? Can common perceptions be altered through the architecture of such institutes?

The first contracted private sector prison in the UK was HM Prison Wolds; opened in 1992. Since then the role of the private sector has grown steadily, with 14 prisons in England and Wales operating under corporate ownership, housing 17% of the country’s total inmate population (A higher proportion than in the US). The contracts are typically shared between three companies; G4S Justice Services, Serco Custodial Services and Sodexo Justice Services.

The contracting-out of imprisonment into the hands of corporations remains a controversial topic. Some argue that the involvement of the private sector has created a more diverse market, resulting in improved standards and promoting efficiency. Others however feel that imprisonment is a function of society that should not be delegated by the state and that prisons should not be run with profit in mind. Debate about whether contracted prisons perform better or worse than their state counterparts continues to rumble on, with it remaining unclear if they represent better value for money. Reports frequently criticise privately run institutions, claiming that multi million-pound global companies are increasing their own profits by making cuts to staff and working conditions whilst running off tax payers’ money.1 These reports are largely justified by the statistics. In some cases, the performances of private prisons have been so poor that they have been taken back into the hands of the public sector. In the 2012/13 ratings produced by the Ministry of Justice, two newly opened privately run institutions received the lowest score (one out of four), signifying that their “overall performance is of serious concern”, whilst a further two were awarded the second lowest rating. This is compared to just one of the 121 publicly-run prisons receiving the lowest grade.

Profit Generators

‘It’s important for us to step back and look at this from a moral perspective; all people of any faith or no faith at all can claim it’s reprehensible to imprison someone for making money or financial motives. It’s important to always remember every single person is a human being, even if they have done something we may find problematic or illegal. They are not profit incentives.’ Michael McBride, director of Urban Strategies and Lifelines to Healing at PICO National Network. 2

In the US, private companies responsible for the running of prisons have initiated negotiations with local governments  to create deals that contain high inmate occupancy rates. These ‘Lockup Quotas’ demand for guaranteed occupancy rates or force taxpayers to pay for the empty beds if the prison population decreases due to lowered  criminal activity and other factors, thus essentially creating a low-crime tax. This inversion of the prison’s original impetus as an institution raises questions about the motives behind privatisation in this sector.  Certain contracts require prisons to be at 90 to 100 percent capacity, creating over-crowding and stretching a prison’s resources to its limits. Contractual clauses like these manufacture incentives for criminalisation and do nothing towards promoting rehabilitation, crime reduction and community rebuilding. These alterations in the institution’s tactics were brought into place in order for the prison system to continue functioning with the aid of external financial resources. However, the ideology of the institution has become warped, creating discrepancies throughout the justice system. Policy decisions that initially strived to be base themselves on creating and maintaining a just criminal justice system that protects the public interest have become an instrument for ensuring corporate profits.

Outsourced and unaccountable

The increasing prominence of privatisation is taking effect not just on the prison system but on many aspects of society. Public space has become a particularly ambiguous term, with many ‘community spaces’ falling under developers’ jurisdiction. Recent projects, such as Thomas Heatherwick’s ‘Garden Bridge’, present a situation where a space’s public status is seriously compromised by its funding and access. The cost of the project has increased from an original forecast of £60m to £175m. Public funding has climbed from a ‘minimal’ figure to £60m. All in aid of constructing a bridge that will remain closed to those on bicycles or to groups consisting of eight or more. In fact, the bridge’s official functioning hours as an actual ‘bridge’ will be between the hours of 6am and midnight, leading to rumours that access will require the purchase of a ticket.3 In essence, a privately backed public bridge has become a publicly funded private tourist attraction.

Vanity projects aside, specific London Boroughs are also susceptible to flirtation with private investment. Councils hit by budget cuts are forced to re-strategise in order to keep valuable cornerstones of their districts functioning, but at what cost? Barnet is a Borough where changes are happening at speed; especially the way residents access their local services – everything from paying council tax to parking tickets to enquiring how many books are available in the library. Over the past few years, the Conservative-led council has grasped almost every public service it can lay its hands on and outsourced it. Between January 2012 and October 2013, Barnet farmed out its legal services, care for people with disabilities, IT, finance, HR, cemeteries and crematoriums, planning and regeneration, trading standards and licensing, management of council housing, procurement, parking, and the highways department. Should this trend of outsourcing continue, the local Unison branch calculates that Barnet council will shrink from having 3200 staff in September 2012 to just 332. Residents are left finding it easier to list what their council doesn’t directly provide than what it does.

When cuts reach a certain level, it’s not just services you lose, but an entire democratic institution. The new-model commissioning council no longer stands as a local arm of government but an agglomeration of mostly privately provided services. Two of the biggest contracts, worth around £500 million and lasting 10 years respectively, have gone to Capita. A giant FTSE 100 corporation worth £7bn is now handling everything from rubbish collection to new roads.4 Local decisions are now handled remotely by personnel hundreds of miles away. Pension queries go to Darlington. Benefits end up in Blackburn. Parking notices come from Croydon. Births, death and marriages are managed in Brent. These two contracts are due to run their course for the next decade, so regardless of whom the locals of Barnet opt to vote for in the next two council elections, they will get Capita.

Cellular ethics 

The American Institute of Architects recently rejected proposed policy changes that would prevent US practices from designing facilities for torture and execution. The AIA’s existing code of ethics ‘should not exist to create limitations on the practice by AIA members of specific building types’, according to the organisation’s outgoing president Helene Combs.5 US prisons bring different challenges to the ones faced by designers in the UK.

They contain programmes such as execution chambers and, in the case of notorious supermax prisons, provide architecture for solitary confinement. In 2011, UN Special Reporter Juan E Mendez claimed that remaining in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days constitutes as torture or inhuman and degrading punishment. Other professions in the country, such as doctors and nurses, have moved quickly to explicitly decline participation in practices associated with torture, so should architects to do the same?

Supermax prisons are designed to isolate people. Raphael Sperry, president of ‘Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility’ (ADPSR), explains that there is no communal space and that every interaction takes place through a slot in the door. ‘All meals are pushed through the slot, all nursing visits take place through the cell door, all medication.’ For architects, the design of such an institution lands them in an awkward position. They may design within the code of ethics, however the state of post-occupancy use may push the facilities into torture territory. The dilemma remains whether the prison population is one that is calling out for better standards of architecture, or is the profession in fact just an accomplice in a much larger injustice?6 Perhaps the best way to serve an incarcerated public is to fully recognise them as a public, even if their right to freedom has been curtailed.


1.    Picture Window, Emily Allchurch (1999)
2.     The New Power Grid, Author’s own
3.    Untitled, Shelagh Sartin (1979)
4.     The Federal Correctional Complex, Colorado
5.    Heatherwick ‘Garden Bridge’, private public space 6.    Exercise yard of Pelican Bay State Prison, KMD Architects


1.    Chris Poyner, “Prison Privatisation”, The Guardian (Nov 2012)
2.    http://prwatch.org
3.    Rowan Moore, “London’s Garden Bridge”, The Guardian (Sept 2014)
4.    http://barnet.gov.uk
5.    http://motherboard.vice.com/read/architects-code-of-ethics
6.    Mimi Zeiger, “Tough Cell”, Architectural Review (Feb 2015)