Posts Tagged ‘prisons’

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reflections on visiting prisons so far

November 23, 2008

I’m doing a small piece of work at the moment with the design team at the RSA on prisons, looking in particular at the experience families have of visiting their loved ones when they’re inside. It’s fascinating so far, and I’m excited about my trip to Newcastle tomorrow to meet the students at Northumbria University who are participating in the project. So I thought I’d get my thoughts in order about what I saw when I went to HMP Wandsworth last week.

The thing I find most shocking is that visits are still part of behaviour incentive programmes at many prisons – in other words, you get fewer visits if you behave badly. This surely flies in the face of large amounts of evidence that maintaining family ties is key to reducing the likelihood of reoffending. Having seen how visits work now I am stunned that anyone can keep any semblance of family life going with two hourly visits a month – so to make them part of an incentive programme seems plain bonkers to me.

Still, the demands on the family members themselves are almost certainly enough to put people off visiting. Once you’ve gone through the rigmarole of securing a visit (not every prison has an email facility yet, and many have just one phone line that is not always staffed), each visit lasts between an hour and two hours, depending on how busy the prison is. But often prisoners are not near home – they get moved around quite regularly to prevent them from forming relationships (hmm, positive relationships are another factor in reducing reoffending so here’s another perverse thing) – meaning that families often have to travel a long way, at some considerable expense, to even get there in the first place.

Once they arrive, they go to the visitor’s centre, usually housed outside the prison walls and run by excellent organisations like PACT. From here they are walked over to the prison, checked in – you cannot take anything into the visits hall except baby food and loose change to buy refreshments – and then taken to the holding room. Here all the visitors are lined up, and searched by officers and by dogs. At the prison I went to last week this holding room was probably the most depressing place I’ve been to for a long time: broken chairs, a stench from overflowing toilets, no tables or anything to occupy kids during the waiting game. Once inside the visits hall, visitors are allocated a table, and the prisoners are brought up from the cells. Prisoners must stay sitting and cannot move around during the visit.

Once the visit is over, the visitors are escorted back to the holding room. From here they are taken out in small groups, back to the visitors centre to collect their stuff and then back into the real world. Depressing stuff.

Still, it’s not all bad. The PACT staff I’ve met treat visitors and prisoners with genuine respect. In fact, the person who showed us round last week worked hard to correct many of the Daily Mail-esque attitudes of some of the students towards prisoners, reminding the group that ‘life’s tough and shit happens: prisoners and their families are no different to us, they’re just people, they’re not evil and sometimes things just happen’. Some officers clearly work hard to make the visit as positive as possible; however many still struggle with an institutionalised mindset that sees visits as ‘soft’.

It seems to me that visits are woefully under-used and undervalued as part of the process of rehabilitating the vast majority of prisoners who will be released again. No use is made of the time to help prisoners and their partners renegotiate their relationships, to deal with the anger that is likely to have been caused by getting banged up. There are erratic links made to advisory services who could help couples work out issues around housing, benefits, jobs and skills together. I hope that the students participating in this project spot those as opportunities and make some suggestions about this.

Finally, so what did the design students think of the visit? ‘It surprised me’ said one. Another said ‘it felt like being in a hospital – like you shouldn’t be there, that you couldn’t touch anything’. Still, reflecting on their decision to get involved in the project, most of them were resoundingly positive, feeling that it had really challenged their design skills, and, my favourite comment of all, ‘it’s made me think about whether I want to design more crap stuff for people to buy and then throw away’. Hurrah for that.

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design, a love rekindled

November 10, 2008

When I discovered the power of design thinking about 7 years ago, it was rather like the experience of falling in love: I just knew that this was right for me, that it made sense. Still, like all real relationships, design and I have had a few rocky patches. And there’s no doubt that my time in Kent tested our relationship pretty hard.

I’m currently really feeling the love again, thanks to the work I’ve started to do with the team running the Design Directions student project on prison visits. I’m sure this project will yield more blogs in the coming weeks, but for now I wanted to capture the key themes of a wonderful phone interview I did this morning with a postgrad design student at Loughborough (let’s call him DK), whose background is in graphic and industrial design. We were mulling over the power of design, its implications for design education, and his own experience of the prisons project so far.

For DK, you cannot be a good designer unless you are genuinely interested in people and their take on particular problems or challenges. He was passionate about the importance of immersion in any experience you were seeking to design for; similarly he argued that engaging with the emotions of that experience was at the heart of design. As he said, ‘after visiting the prison, I had to go back to my book of notes from my secondary research and re-evaluate every single thing I’d written down’. He talked about how learning to be a designer had helped him to conquer his shyness – part of the role of the designer is to draw people out, to get them talking, to understand where they are coming from.

That said, DK argued that you shouldn’t go too far down this empathy route. Being a designer is not the same as being someone’s friend. He described how he works really hard to feel the emotions people have around a particular experience or product, but then how he has to step back from it, and put his designer hat on again to ask ‘what is the design insight from this emotion?’. This wearing of two hats is intriguing to me. It clearly had a particular resonance for the prison visits project too: as DK said, his sessions with the prison officers had made him realise that in order to create good outcomes, he would need to design for the interaction between officers and inmates, as well as the products and services that relate to the experience of visits between prisoners and their families.

His view was that designers should work across the many different fields encompassed by the word – from product, to graphic, to architectural, to interaction design and so on. He was nervous about the growing interest in designers-as-strategists, arguing that the skills of product and service design should not be isolated from the more strategic design thinking. In many ways his view of things reminded me of the ambitions of the original Bauhaus for its students – that they would be ‘hands on and minds on’ – the two are not mutually exclusive – in fact, far from it, they are each reinforcing of the other.

We also talked about the fact that there is little connection currently between design education and employment opportunities for designers. Again, this had resonance with the old Bauhaus view (most recently brought out by Richard Sennett in The Craftsman) that rather than teachers and students, what we need are apprentices, journeymen, and masters. Learning should take place in the workshop, not the ivory tower. The joint employment of a design intern by the Social Innovation Lab in Kent and design studio Engine hints at how this might work in the future – however it is but one tiny example…

Can’t wait to get into this prisons project a little more. And I think it’s safe to say that even at this early stage, it has rekindled the love affair between design and I.