Reconsidering the environmental space of prisons - a step further towards criminal reform

Scientific Study 2012 25 Pages

Law - Philosophy, History and Sociology of Law


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. The Prison as an environmental space
2.1 Prison: concept definition
2.2 Why can environmental psychology be of help?

3. Personal space and privacy in prisons
3.1 Concepts definition
3.2 Increasing the privacy sphere and self-development

4. The crowding effect in prisons
4.1. The effects of crowding
4.2. Reducing the overcrowding effect

5. Designing more fitting environments for rehabilitation
5.1. What does prison designing imply?
5.2. The environmental elements that enable the rehabilitation

6. Conclusions


All online documents linked to this paper were last accessed on 07.05.2012.

Reconsidering the environmental space of prisons: a step further towards criminal reform Ioana-Cristina SISERMAN[1]

"One of the many lessons that one learns in prison is, that things are what they are and will he what they will he. 'We who live in prison, and in whose lives there is no event hut sorrow, have to measure time hy throhs of pain and the record of hittermoments". (OscarWilde)


The present study presents, from an interdisciplinary perspective, the space of prisons by putting forward elements pertaining to both environmental psychology and law and by discussing the effects that this space has on transforming and shaping the behaviour of the inmates. It also examines the negative consequences of some social processes involving personal space, crowding, privacy, as well as the psychological effects of the prisons on the behaviour of the convicts and the costs that they have on their rehabilitation. Nonetheless, the study proposes some alternatives and ways of improving the life of the convicts in these environments in order to ensure a better reintegration into the society.

Keywords: prison, behaviour, psychological effects, criminal reform, rehabilitation, United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, International Convention on Civil and Political Human Rights, European Prison Rules etc.

1. Introduction

During my traineeship at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, I understood that speaking about the reform of the criminal system is not possible without first envisaging the prison reform. Aiming at a more effective criminal system is not achievable unless punishment is applied in such a manner as to make possible a positive change in the persons who committed a crime. Therefore, trying to find efficient ways to transform the space of prisons in a place that permits to the incarcerated people to evolve and change in a positive manner represents a theme of a very high relevance for practitioners and specialists of both law and psychology.

The prison reform is not a theme frequently envisaged. During legal studies, the psychological effects of incarceration and prisons as complex environments are only superficially tackled. Because of that, many lawyers start their careers ignoring the human aspect of punishment and consider only the retributive aspect of it. In the same time, the studies made in environmental psychology, which analyze prisons as buildings and environments where the behaviour of the inmates is dramatically changed and shaped, are also scarce. Despite the apparent lack of attention on this matter, I believe that the study of prisons has a lot of pragmatic relevance due to the high number of convicts worldwide.

Understanding the psychological processes that take place within the walls of prisons is indispensable for the idea of criminal reform. It is often claimed that prisons should be places that facilitate a positive psychological change in the convicts, by enabling their rehabilitation and reintegration in the society. However, unfortunately, this is not always the case. It has been showed on various times, that the psychological consequences of incarceration may represent significant impediments to post-prison adjustment and they can impede a successful reintegration into a social network and employment setting[2].

The general standards for treating prisoners were first set in the 1955 United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners[3]. While the United Nations has not developed a comprehensive new set of prison standards, these type of standards started to emerge at regional levels and one of the most comprehensive is the European Prison Rules[4]. However, the major international human rights conventions that have treaty status deal with the imprisonment only in general terms. For example, art. 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[5] outlaws that "no one shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment", while art. 10 provides that "all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of human persons".

Prison reform is an issue that presupposes changes in legislations, and in the same time changes in the attitude of the national governments. Although there are established international guidelines regarding the treatment of the prisoners, on the national level "prison laws do not change frequently; they tend to remain in place for 50 years or more"[6]. Just as Penal Reform International has emphasized, in some countries of the world, prison legislation dates back to 1800[7]. Because of this aspect, there are many prisons worldwide that do not meet the most basic standards for incarcerating individuals.

According to some studies[8], there is little or no evidence that the prisons system across the world has responded to these psychological issues, either in the time of confinement or at the time of release. My major worry is that over the next decades, the impact of the prisons' psychological effects will be strongly felt into the communities, as there will be expected a massive number of ex-convicts who will complete their sentence and return home. It is therefore from here that criminal reform has to begin. Besides the work preformed by the legal practitioners and different agencies, specialists in environmental psychology have to step in and propose ways to improve the environment of prisons in order to make sure that their negative psychological consequences are minimized as much as possible.

Therefore, the main questions that I am going to try to answer in this paper are the following: could we actually affirm that prisons are spaces that enable positive transformations, taking into consideration the way in which they are currently designed and the conditions in which the inmates live? Are not prisons nowadays created and managed mostly as spaces in which convicts are thrown in order to pay their debts towards the society because of their misconduct? And is it actually realistic to think that a person who has been secluded and abandoned for decades in a prison can come back and be useful to the society after such a long time, especially in the case in which the prison had worsen his/her physical and psychological condition?

In order to provide an answer to all the questions above, the paper is divided in three main parts. The first part of the study deals mainly with presenting the space of prisons, while showing some of the main reasons why they should receive more consideration from environmental psychologists. The second and third part of the study discuss some of the social aspects of prison psychology (among others personal space, privacy and crowding), while putting forward the psychological effects of the prisons on the behaviour of the inmates and the consequences that they have on their rehabilitation. The last part is consecrated to proposing a possible solution to design more fitting environmental spaces in order to encourage and enable the rehabilitation of the convicts.

2. The Prison as an environmental space

2.1 Prison: concept definition

The first evident aspect that has to be clarified when tackling this subject is the definition of "prison". There are numerous formal definitions which have been proposed in order to explain this concept. For example, only the Collins English Dictionary of the 21st Century Edition provides several definitions for the concept of "prison": "1. a public building used to hold convicted criminals and accused persons awaiting trial; 2. any place of confinement or seeming confinement; 3. jail, penitentiary, reformatory etc."[9].

From a psychological perspective, the concept has received a more extensive definition. Murphy defined the prison as a "complex environment with many different people having different needs and roles"[10]. In this environment, the prison cell is considered to be central to the housing of an inmate and makes up the core of a prison's architecture. According to Murphy, the cell must enable "different prisoners to be able to have different schedules, to manage themselves while improving security and enabling more efficient prison management"[11].

The existing international framework on the matter, is most of the time vague on the subject, as it does not provide any definition of prisons. It only sometimes mentions the function and the purpose of the prison. For example, in a definition provided by Penal Reform International, the function of the prison is to "house people in a manner consistent with human dignity and which in the end will rehabilitate and aid the reintegration of the individual back into society"[12]. The European Prison Rules mentions that "life in prison shall approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in community" and therefore "all detention shall be managed so as to facilitate the reintegration into free society of persons who have been deprived of their liberty". In this light, the European Prison Rules also provide in art. 102.2 that "imprisonment is by the deprivation of liberty a punishment in itself and therefore the regime for sentenced prisoners shall not aggravate the suffering inherent in imprisonment"[13].

2.2 Why can environmental psychology be of help?

The aim of environmental psychology, as presented by Gifford, is to "understand person-environment transactions and to use this knowledge in order to facilitate the solving of a wide variety of problems"[14]. The study of prison should be given a special attention within environmental psychology because this is a social space reuniting a wide number of people. Prison is also a space in which people confront themselves with many problems: acute stressors, adaptation problems, learning and evolving problems etc. Therefore, it has to be designed in a way to encourage complex behaviours such as working, learning and adapting to everyday life.

The study of prisons is also necessary in order to understand and prevent the psychological effects of incarceration. Craig Haney identified some of the consequences of the imprisonment. Firstly, he showed that in prison, the inmates are under a high risk of developing a dependence on institutional structure and contingencies. The author explains that the institutionalization renders some people so dependent on external constrains that they "gradually lose the capacity to rely on internal organization and self-imposed personal limits to guide their actions and restrain their conduct"[15]. Moreover, the inmates' hyper­vigilance, interpersonal distrust and suspicion can increase. The researcher believes that the reason resides in the fact that prisons are dangerous places where prisoners have to learn quickly to become over alert to signs of threat and personal risk. This is also confirmed by a study performed by McCorkle in the maximum security Tennessee prison. He found that "fear appeared to be shaping the life-styles of many of the men"[16]. He reported that over 40% of the prisoners try to avoid risk areas of the prisons and an equal number spend additional time in their cells as a precaution against victimization[17].


[1] Cristina SISERMAN is currently a Master Student at the University of Vienna, Austria with a special focus on "The impact of Neuroscience on Criminal Justice". She graduated the Faculty of Law at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, after two years specialization in European and International Law at the Faculty of Law Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris 1, France and Faculty of Law Jean-Moulin, Lyon 3, France. She is currently working as an Intern at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Vienna, Austria.

[2] Haney, C., (2001), The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment, University of California, Project: From Prison to Home: The Effects of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families and Communities, Available online: http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/prison2home02/Haney.htm

[3] For the whole text of the United Nations Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, See the site of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights available at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/treatmentprisoners.htm

[4] For the whole text of the European Prison Rules, See the site of Council of Europe available at: https: / / wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.isp?id=955747

[5] For the whole text of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Human Rights, See the site of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights available at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/ccpr.htm

[6] Penal Reform International, (2008), A Compendium of Comparative Prison Legislation, Brixton, London, p. 4. Available online: http://www.penalreform.org/publications/compendium-comparative-prison-legislation-0

[7] Penal Reform International, Ibid,

[8] See Haynes, C., Ibid,

[9] See Collines Online Dictionary, Available online: http://www.collinslanguage.com/

[10] Murphy, N., (2009), Introduction to Prison design, PrisonDesign.org, Available online:


[11] Murphy, N., (2009), Prison Cell design concept, PrisonDesign.org, Available online: http://prisondesign.org/

[12] Penal Reform International, (2008), A Compendium of Comparative Prison Legislation, Brixton, London, p. 13. Available online: http://www.penalreform.org/publications/compendium-comparative-prison-legislation-0

[13] For the whole text of the European Prison Rules, See the site of Council of Europe available at: https: / / wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.isp?id=955747

[14] Gifford, R., (1987), Environmental Psychology: Principles and Practice, Allyn and Bacon Inc, Massachusetts, p. 3.

[15] Haynes, C., Ibid.

[16]. McCorkle, R., (1992), Personal Precautions to Violence in Prison, Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol. 19, p. 160-173.

[17] Haynes, C., Ibid.


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Title: Reconsidering the environmental space of prisons - a step further towards criminal reform