Comfortable, humane, environmentally-sustainable prisons “on the way”?

Comfortable, humane, environmentally-sustainable prisons “on the way”?

Comfortable, humane and environmentally-sustainable prisons may be on the way for Portugal.

After recent news stories detailing ‘hideous conditions’ of overcrowded jails in big cities, an article in Público has today described the ‘revolution’ underway in prison-planning – focused on depriving inmates ‘only of their liberty’, and safeguarding dignity and human rights.

“Prison is not a place for punishment”, Jorge Mealha, the leading architect behind the project told the paper. “It is a mechanism to rehabilitate people who at a determined moment in life had behaviour not tolerated by society”.

The idea is to create an environment that reduces stress and consequently aggressivity, increasing the quality of life for inmates and all those who work inside the prison.

So far, designs are being considered for a new prison in Montijo (tenders to go out in 2020) and one in Ponta Delgada, in the Azores.

The projects will cost the government €120 million, said reports in July, which also went into some detail on the departure from the typical prison ‘model’.

These prisons will have patios, ‘rooms’ (not cells), trees, grass and open spaces.
And there will be a minimum of bars on the windows, as these can add to inmate stress apparently.

Tough glass will take the place of bars, “as much as possible”.

Says Público, “clearly influenced by Nordic prisons, these new jails propose a change of paradigm. Their design offers spatial fluidity, green spaces and colour. Playing fields are planned with visual and physical contact with natural elements” that should “promote emotional equilibrium”, according to Joaquim Rodrigues, president of the IGFEJ – the government institution that will sanction the money for these new solutions.

The initial project even suggested salmon-orange for some of the walls of inmate’s ‘rooms’ and common areas “because it has been demonstrated that this is a colour that produces calming effects”, says Mealha, though he accepts that prison authorities may not be implementing all his team’s suggestions.

In fact, Expresso reported earlier this summer that the ‘first crack’ in this brave new style of incarceration “has already appeared”: Rómulo Mateus, director-general of the prison service, has stressed “not everything in the project will be realised”.

The colours, for example, “are beautiful and attractive but they are expensive…” he told the paper.

Nonetheless, the sustainability suggestions – which involve the use of solar and/ or geothermal energy instead of traditional fossil fuels, and the storage of rainwater for washing and outdoor irrigation” – are likely to be viewed as making perfect sense.

When this caged Utopia will really start to evolve is the big question, however.

The Montijo plan has a date – but the Ponta Delgado jail doesn’t. Expresso said in July that the project was ‘stuck’ because the tender for clearing the land is under an embargo, put in by one of the companies that had presented a bid. This embargo now has to be analysed in court.

In numbers, Montijo will be designed to take a maximum of 769 prisoners, Ponta Delgado a maximum of 472.

Meantime, Portugal’s prison service staggers under a variety of problems, not least the recent warning by guards that they will be going on strike later this month because of unresolved issues with their governing board.

The strike will mean that inmates are deprived of visits on the days in question – September 20-23.

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