32% Make Do With One Stay - New Trends in Prison Design

In a speech at the opening ceremony of Tzalmon Prison, High Court President Aaron Barak said, 'A society is judged by the qual

In a speech at the opening ceremony of Tzalmon Prison, High Court President Aaron Barak said, 'A society is judged by the quality of its prisons. An enlightened society is judged by the treatment of its prisoners. The prisoner has committed a crime and has been punished accordingly; his liberty has been taken away, but the human essence still remains. Prison walls separate the prisoner from freedom. But the prison walls must not come between the prisoner and human dignity.'

Despite Judge Baraks honorable statement, the facts in Israel are cause for concern. Of the 9,200 prisoners, twenty percent are illiterate, and a large proportion have not completed primary school. Most were born into problematic homes from which they had no hope of escape. Around 7,800 of the prisoners are criminal offenders; half of them are Arabs. An estimated 1,200 are defined as 'high security' prisoners and approximately 250 are not Israeli citizens. 32% of the convicts 'make do' with one prison term, whereas about a third of the prisoners return to prison four to six times. Drugs, cited as a primary factor of crime in Israel, are a major problem in prisons, with about 70 percent of the prisoners abusing drugs. The law does not allow intrusive physical examination, not even of the mouth cavity. This alone makes drug smuggling into and around the prisons a daily activity which impacts significantly on prison life.

The majority of citizens have no first hand knowledge of these institutions that 'serve' the disadvantaged sections of the population. The publics major sources of information are the stereotypical depictions supplied by books and movies. The enormous discrepancy between the image and real life is apparent when one learns with surprise that of all the prisons in Israel, only one, Tzalmon, has a communal dining hall. In most prisons, inmates still eat, sleep and use toilet facilities in a cell of 16-20 prisoners. A rigid subculture develops whereby the allocation of tasks is based on an hierarchical division of power. Also in contrast to popular notion, the Prison Service is staffed, for the most part, by dedicated and sensitive professionals who bear no resemblance to the traditional prison warden of the movies, who takes pleasure in torturing prisoners.

This does not go to say that all is well within the Prison Service. Harsh reality indicates otherwise. Nevertheless, after fifty years of improvising and battling with often irrelevant bureaucratic legacies, the Prison Service has come to understand that skilled and qualified professionals are essential to tackling the problem. In recent years, the Prison Service has been undergoing a drastic reorganization of which the public is largely unaware. Tzalmon Prison is evidence of the Services serious attempt to introduce innovative ideas; to examine other countries systems; and to adapt those lessons to Israeli reality.

Not surprisingly, prison facilities in Israel are a patchwork of structures built during the Turkish era and the British Mandate, using various and strange methods. Damon Prison, for example, lodges twenty prisoners per cell in a former tobacco warehouse designed to produce and maintain high humidity. What suits tobacco is very seldom good for humans, regardless of the severity of their crime.

Israeli prisons are classified by security level assigned to inmates. Accordingly, a prisons security level is first exhibited in its security facilities, such as electrified fences found in Shata, Ayalon Ramleh and Beer Sheva prisons. Other prisons like Tzalmon, Damon, Carmel and Masiyho, make do with perimeter fencing. The prisoners are divided into thirty categories, ranging from criminals, dangerous, white-collar, high-risk escapees, women, and solitaries.

The Prison Service has adopted the 'cluster' method as a total design starting point, having researched and evaluated modern prison design elsewhere. This method constitutes a collection of prisons, with different designations and definitions, located on one site with the logistics - central kitchen, laundry, technical services - serving all the units. Based on different categories, the cluster method offers control and separation of prisoners. This concept lead to the preparation of a master plan for six prison clusters: Calanit (Tzalmon), Hadarim (Tel Mond), Ayalon (Ramleh) and Beer Sheva prisons.

To make life easier for their families, prisoners, particularly those serving long terms, are generally incarcerated at prisons near their homes. Prisons, however, are not built in accordance with areas of crime, and a paradoxical situation has arisen whereby some prisons are intolerably crowded while others have 'vacancies'. Hermon Prison for the estimated four percent of prisoners entitled to rehabilitation, has many empty cells. On the other hand, there are already two penitentiary facilities in the Beer Sheva region, and two more are planned on the large reserves of land in the area.

The basic premise that buildings must be user friendly, assumes crucial significance in regards to prisons which must accommodate two extremely contrasting groups of users. Not only do the users (wardens and prisoners), receive fundamentally different treatment, but the prison provides for their differing needs. The prisoners are at home while for the wardens the jail is a place of work. This type of division exists in other functional buildings, such as hotels, where the stay is temporary and voluntary and the welfare and comfort of the individual is of central importance. Prison inmates, however, are forced to live there, their stay is more permanent, and the welfare of the individual is not always the designers main consideration.

There is an additional interim user group, the prisoners families and visitors. In contrast to criminals who, one might say, are imprisoned due to 'professional risk', their families are forced to interact with the prison over a long period of time with no power to influence the circumstances. With this in mind, the question is, what makes a good prison? Good for whom? Good for the prisoners who live there or for the team that must manage it? Does examination and definition of a prison also include the law-abiding citizens who have an interest in criminals being imprisoned, and not necessarily in such luxurious conditions?

During a visit to Tzalmon Prison, one of the prisoners approached us and asked who we were. When he learned that our group included the architect who designed the building, he enthused, 'This prison is the best one Ive been in, and its a joy to live in.' Ironically, one of the wardens complained, on his own and the prisoners behalf, that in the non-airconditioned cells, 'There is no ventilation and you cant breathe'. We were not comforted by an inmate of the nearby Hermon Prison advising us, 'Dont believe what they tell you.'

The visit took place on a very hot summers day, and in all likelihood the wardens room wasnt cool either. The bombshelter, used as a lounge for the prisoners, is airconditioned and has a television, but no one was there because the room 'gave off a feeling of being closed in.' By law, prisoners merit a bed, food and medical attention only. The rest derives from rights extended by the local personnel and administration. 'The rest' is mainly employed for internal punishment purposes as withdrawal of privileges such as weekly visits and casual clothing, a privilege not extended to wardens, and one that makes a striking difference in the overall appearance of the prisons.

A prison is a complex building in terms of functionality and social and image uses. It is difficult to relate to it on purely architectural grounds. All aspects of design must be addressed, particularly those relating to human beings, and, in this regard, Tzalmon Prison signifies a real revolution. That is not to imply that all the problems relating to prison facilities have been solved. There are signs, however, that those working in the field are beginning to understand the extremely complex subject matter at hand. A high percentage of Israeli prisoners are still jailed in difficult conditions. Due to lack of funding, both Shata Prison and the wing for illegal migrants awaiting deportation in Masiyho Prison, resemble something out of a bad movie. The womens prison at Neve Tirza, which houses all 200 female prisoners in Israel, is not a typical example, but compared to some other developed countries, in this area Israel is advancing at an appreciable pace. There is hope for the future.

Tzalmon Prison, which was planned by Poreh Yaacovi Architects in conjunction with Silver Ziskind from New York, won the American Institute of Architects (AIA) prize. Officially opened in 1996 after three years of construction, Tzalmon sets a new standard for prison design in Israel. It is also a fundamental turning point in the perception of imprisonment and rehabilitation of prisoners in this country. The very generous programme was drafted by an American company which specializes in penitentiary facilities. Adapting it to Israeli law and conditions dictated different and occasionally contrasting approaches to accepted practice of hundreds of years. Budgetary limitations prevented its full application and occasionally it was interpreted according to Israeli Prison Service thinking, a state of mind that still perceives an intercom system as more valuable than a window.

One of the most prominent expressions of the architectural interpretation is the planning of a fenceless compound with only a guard tower revealing its function. The range of buildings, which maintains rigid pace and form, blends impressively with the hilly landscape of the Tzalmon Valley. In the background, Hermon Prison, a drug rehabilitation center designed by Faitelson, Shilo Jacobson, sprawls like a suburb. The prison compound spreads laterally over an area of 400 meters. In order to offset the appearance of a perimeter wall, the line of walls is broken by vertical windows which give the row of buildings a friendly appearance while maintaining a closed area. The Tzalmon 'campus' comprises a large yard (300 meters in length) with six prisoner wings on one side and a 'main street' on the other, adjacent to other public facilities. The education complex is at the center, with excersize courts on either side.

The relaxed appearance overlaying the impressive landscape, visible from all directions, is carefully and cleverly designed to the last detail. Covered walkways between the wings allow protection from the elements, and imbue the compound with the symbolic but unintentional appearance of a train station. While the synagogue, which stands as an independent unit in the yard, adds an aesthetic touch, its centrality in the compound also reminds the prisoners of 'where they came from and where they are going', just like a control tower. The knowledge that 'becoming religious' grants a number of benefits enhances a sense of acquired utilitarian religiosity, although Yehuda Fried, the prison education officer, refutes the notion. The religious prisoners are housed in a special wing, and the prison rabbi is also responsible for followers of other religions.

The range of activities - work, studies, sports - differentiate this prison from others where prisoners spend most of the day in their cells. Even when granted 'walking time' in the yard, the prisoners often prefer to stay in their cells, saying they are 'tired'. At Tzalmon Prison, labor is mandatory. Specialization in an acquired profession or professional training via Ministry of Labor courses are designed to help the prisoners rehabilitate after their release. The technical system, which includes supervision and policing duties, comprises a control system in the entrance hall, prisoner and goods control, and absorption areas. All the systems include double doors with a controlled space between them. In certain areas, there are separate routes for prisoners and visitors who meet in the visitors hall with a covered balcony. The clinic includes hospitalization rooms, doctors rooms and a guarded pharmacy.

The fundamental change in approach witnessed at Tzalmon is characterized by a number of innovations. Foremost is the departure from the usual custom whereby prisoners spend most of the day in their cells while prison services are brought to them. Tzalmon Prison was planned as a university style 'campus' in which the prisoners have to take themselves to services dispersed around a large central courtyard (300m. x 150m.). This layout requires a high level of prisoner mobility between the six imprisonment wings, the dining rooms, the activity, health and administration complexes, the store and sports courts. This free flow of the population enhances the sense of community.

The four dining rooms, each accommodating 120 prisoners, are an innovation not found at any other prison in Israel. This allows prisoners to communicate with each other - like in the movies - and to spend time outside the rigid framework of the cell or compulsory activities. Another important aspect of life at Tzalmon Prison is that prisoners keep their own cell keys, except at night when the cells are closed via a central electronic control system. Although each two-prisoner cell has a sink and toilet bowl, it was decided not to install showers in the cells, for hygienic reasons. Special emphasis was applied to details adapted to a relatively free approach: windows that allow limited opening, ceiling grilles, protected faucets and centralized service systems placed in accessible service channels outside the cells. The public areas in the wings are designed without blind spots and are comfortably observable from the guards position.

Prison planning requires special attention to aesthetics. Only in recent years have Israelis begun to realize that the environment also has an educational impact. Although budgetary limitations - not only with regard to prisons - make it hard to talk about an 'aesthetics element', it is possible to create a situation whereby not everything that meets the prisoners eye is ugly. Appropriate use of construction materials and attention to architectural detail contribute greatly to the achievement of aesthetic qualities. A pleasant inner courtyard allows families to sit together while children play; even though the pergola is roofed by grilles, the atmosphere created is relaxed. The landscaping, designed by Moria-Sekeli, enhances the prisons appearance, and in cooperation with the gardening course held at the prison, increases environmental awareness. The budget for the building designed to accommodate 480 prisoners, and which already houses 700 prisoners, was 30 million shekels.

Any Prison Service officer will tell you that prisons are meant to punish and remove the prisoner from the society he has harmed. Rehabilitation, they say, is not part of a prisons designation. Nevertheless, there are prisons that attempt to tackle the issue of education and over the years many have proven that, when given free rein, rehabilitation is possible. Even in the case of tent-camp security prisons, from where many of the new generation of Palestinian leaders have graduated as well educated, fluent Hebrew speakers and... drug-free.


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