Humanising Prisons for a Better World: My TEDx Talk on the Architecture of Incarceration

As a long-standing admirer of the TED platform – that has connected me virtually to so many soul-shaping ideas and inspiring personalities – I was thrilled to receive the opportunity to speak at TEDxBhilwara. Although I am no prison architect or activist or volunteer (at least not yet), I accepted the invitation as an opening to give voice to an idea that I think is very relevant today and demands an urgent shift in our deeply-seated perceptions about crime and punishment. I’ve attempted to do this the best I can in my personal capacity. Here it is – arguments as to why we ought to humanise our prisons for a better world. Speech text and video below.




If I were to come to you and offer you free housing and free food for the rest of your life, it might sound like quite an exciting offer right, especially given the real estate and vegetable prices today. But what if I then told you that actually the address of this place is Tihar Jail? Hmm, well it’s probably not as exciting anymore.

There’s something about our prisons that instantly conjures up images of fear and aversion in our minds and we don’t quite want to talk about it.

In fact, in ancient Rome, criminals were relegated to underground sewers, as if to equate them with human waste – banishing them out of sight, out of mind. But this was only a temporary stop before they were brought out for their real punishment – flogging, stoning to death, torture. The principle operating here was one of revenge as a means of punishment – “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. This was first codified by the ancient Babylonians in the Code of Hammurabi. Socrates, the famous philosopher, was one of the unfortunates to be dished out such a manner of punishment. For apparently poisoning the mind of the youth with his free questioning, he was dealt death by poison.

But then human beings started thinking a little differently. They started seeing that incarceration itself could be a form of punishment and that you didn’t have to do all these other things. So our very first prisons came up in our fortresses and castles. From popular culture, we’ve heard of places like Kala Pani on Andaman Islands, where our freedom fighters were sent off.




Kala Pani is a really good example of a really bad jail. Or a really good jail if you’re a British officer. Here, a central guard tower watches over everybody. The building says, “you are being watched at all times, but you can’t see who is watching you.”

Like a lot of colonial architecture at the time, this building is expressing authority.




It says that henceforth, once you have crossed this gateway, you are powerless and you are cut off from the world. And inside, it is empty, stark, barren. Unending. Dark, dingy.






And of course, if you’re a prisoner then you deserve no privacy.




Over the past century, have our prisons changed all that much? After all, a prison is a place for people who have done bad things, so if we make them really terrible places, then they will deter people from committing crime.

I’m going to sidetrack a little bit here and talk about something you may be familiar with. You might have seen Amy Cuddy’s talk, the second-most popular TED talk of all time. In it she describes how our bodies and our minds are powerfully connected. Cuddy talks about how we can actually begin to change our lives by changing our body posture. She describes how if you are hunched over all day for too long, your body is going to significantly spike up your stress levels. Now imagine for a moment that you’re a prisoner crowded into a barrack that is meant for 20 people but which actually has 30 or 40 people. Imagine that you are hunched over all day clinging on to the little shred of personal space that you have been given. It’s quite likely that you might become a highly stressed individual. Especially if you are a mother with child, as a lot of women prisoners are. Our body affects our mind. Our mind affects our behaviour. Our behaviour affects our outcomes. And our outcomes together affect society.

Now why is this important? This is important because factually, only a fraction of prisoners are actually going to be in prison for life. Doesn’t this mean that the purpose of a prison should be more than just enforcing punishment? Shouldn’t the minimum criterion of a prison be that an inmate emerges no worse than when he entered? But is this happening? Because in the United State, as high as 70-80% of inmates actually return to a life of crime after release from prison. Prisons are becoming breeding grounds for hardened criminals.




These guys are only going to end up on your dinner table. But prisoners living in conditions like this are going to come back to society. We can expect crime levels to drop only if we stop this vicious cycle where we are putting people in jail and then back in society as perhaps more stressed individuals – people whose souls have left them because they spent 20-30 years in a desolate and dark environment.

Our bodies and our minds are powerfully connected and they are in direct contact with the environment, with architecture. We often underestimate the impact of architecture on us. What we design in turn acts back on us and designs us. Anne MarieWilis, she writes about how there is a circularity between what we put out there in the world and what happens within us, between what’s without of us and what’s within of us. Recent research in neuroscience is also finding that contemplative architecture (like this) actually induces a state of mind that is similar to being physically in a state of meditation.



It’s understandable that most architects would rather aspire to do work like this than have anything at all to do with prisons.

I asked this question for my thesis – can prison architecture change to enable reformation instead of punishment?


And there is so much that’s happening worldover to penetrate this same question. This is a new prison in Australia.


Compare the scales to what you saw before. The buildings are beginning to open up, to connect with the landscape, with gardens. The forms are richer, almost playful to create some aesthetic pleasure. The rooms are brighter, they bring in more light. They open up more to the view outside.

Kathleen Macferran described at a TEDx talk given inside a prison in the US, about how she would observe one prisoner everyday as he kept planting flowering shrubs under the razor wires.


When she asked him why he did it, he said that he just wanted to bring some beauty into the place. D H Lawrence had said that “it was ugliness which really betrayed the spirit of man in the 19th century. The human soul needs actual beauty even more than bread,” he said. And I think this is the aspiration of what some of the newer prisons are trying to do. Of course, I’m not saying we should make 5 star hotels out of taxpayers’ money. Though if we did start doing that then there would probably be no taxpayers left – on the outside. This is about restoring basic human dignity, which later gets translated back in society.

This is about recognising that our fundamental need as human beings is our need for good healthy human relationships. If you look at the changing character of prisons today, you will notice that something striking is happening. And it’s exciting.




The image on the left is of a 19th century penitentiary in the US. And the image on the right is of that new prison in Australia. The architecture is changing to mimic society, to mimic a village almost. You have clusters that are wrapping around courtyards, opening up to the landscape. As opposed to the old diagram, where you were either one amongst many fading into oblivion, or you were isolated; here you are part of and accountable to a group.




The prison is trying to be as ‘normal’ as it can be so that smaller groups mimic the family unit in outside society. What changes also when this diagram changes, is that you no longer have a guard sitting in a high tower, invisible and ever-watching. Instead, the guard is on the ground, amongst the prisoners. Rather than a fear of being watched at all times, you have a sense of community and a relationship with these human authoritative figures.




India is also ahead of its times in many ways. In Kerala, there is a prison without walls. Here, the authorities have dared to trust the inmates to have a sense of self-responsibility. And this jail houses murderers, mind you. And in 32 years of operation, this open prison has had only one escape and one repeat offender, writes Jim Merkel. A prison without a wall becomes a place into which society can permeate and volunteer. And government funds are so poor that volunteering is the best option there is to educate prisoners to become better individuals. So as much as we can enable that permeability, the better it is for everyone.




Well I had this kind of optimism in my head anyhow, while I was doing research for my thesis. I tried for weeks to get permission to visit a jail, without success. So like a naive architecture student, I took a friend along and decided to take a walk around the perimeters of the jail and see what we can see. Obviously I took a satellite image of the Jail off Google along with me. So we were taking this walk outside the terrorist cells, very smartly. And of course within no time the prison authorities apprehended us as terrorists. They thought we were planning an escape attempt, they took our mug shots and put them onto their system, and they told me: “you’re forbidden from entering jail. EVER.”

I think that means I have some kind of permanent immunity now to do anything I want.

Well the thing I learnt from this is that the world is not going to become utopian overnight. We have to work with conditions that already exist. So yes, prisons are isolated systems today. But we can take advantage of this isolation, like Kiran Bedi did. She turned the prison into an ashram, so that self-realisation would trigger the process of reformation. Understanding that “Crime is a product of the distorted mind”, she achieved something unthinkable in 1993. She got a 1000 inmates to be together in a single hall in one of the worst jails in the country the Tihar Jail – for ten days straight – to practise the ancient meditation technique of Vipassana. The event was successful and today this technique has even reached the prisons in United States, and it’s gradually doing something.

So yes, we do have the reformative programmes in place. But we need to work on the intangibles – beauty, community, nature, aesthetics. We are still reluctant to change our guidelines. We are reluctant to plant trees in our jails because we fear that inmates will climb the trees because they want to fall and break their legs because they want to land up in a hospital far away from jail because they’re that desperate to get a lease of fresh air. That’s our logic for reasoning.


Instead of allowing inmates access to open space and contact with nature like this, which actually increases sensibilities; instead we have horrible vertical bars obstructing their vision towards outside space.

We make our inmates relate to their families and friends – their only real connection with society, their only motivation for becoming better individuals – across a three-metre wide cage. That’s like me trying to have a conversation with you across a cage, with twenty other people around me, shouting to be heard. To truly become a model nation in how we deal with criminals, we have to reconsider our guidelines, and reconsider how much the environment affects us.


But how much does it matter to the rest of us how beautiful or ugly it is behind those walls of the prison? Out of sight, out of mind – we can almost forget about prisons right. Well, we don’t realise it but the prison diagram has triggered the diagram for several of our walled campuses. Our schools, offices, hospitals, hostels, old age homes and even housing societies. They’re all about keeping people inside and controlling movement. There is a circularity and one end of the spectrum (the prison) does affect the other end of the spectrum which does directly affects us. It’s all connected. If we improve this end of the spectrum, think about the repercussions that are possible. Let me give you an example.

The condition of the planet today is pretty scary right. A lot of our speakers today spoke about this, and we all agree, somewhere deep down, that there is an urgent need for remedial strategies. But it is not happening at the pace it should, and it’s quite frustrating. There are so many forces in consumeristic society that are preventing the changes that ought to be happening. But think about it, the prison as it stands today, is almost an isolated system. It is cut off from a lot of these external forces. It is completely cut off from consumeristic society. The prison can be the crucible for change – not only personal change but change at an environmental scale. Think about the size of each prison, the sheer number of prisons in the world.




If they all took advantage of their present isolation to become crucibles for environmental, technological, creative and spiritual research, just think about where we might go as a planet.


Clarification: With respect to the mentioned statistic on inmates in Gujarat, according to NCRB data for 2015, only 40% of inmates here are not inside for life. This does not correspond with the information I received directly via reliable sources. The mistaken figure mentioned in the talk is deeply regretted. It may be emphasised, however, that convicts sentenced to ‘life’ imprisonment can be granted remission after a requisite number of years, and are therefore in custody for an ‘indeterminate period’. Another important argument as to the case for humanising our prisons is that undertrials account for approximately 65-70% of all inmates in India.

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Niharika Sanyal

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