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Honouring unexpected outcomes by Roberto Fraquelli

Ecological Design Thinking student project

Students from our Ecological Design Thinking programme have recently completed a ‘live’ project at Dartmoor Prison as part of our ‘transformation the story of place’ module.

The brief was to see if it was possible to improve the visitor experience to try to make it less stressful as security requirements can be frustrating and time consuming, especially for children.

Being ecological designers, we undertook the project with a very open heart, eager to learn and explore opportunities, and to engage with a worth-while subject area none of us had previous experience of.

The overwhelming sensation we all experienced was one of a ‘lack of humanity’.

The students quickly put into practice their deep empathic design-research techniques and organised a number of interviews with visitors at the prison, some of whom had travelled from far off places to see their loved ones.

Dartmoor prison (pictured left) has a reputation for being the most remote and difficult prison to get to in the UK, and the architecture can seem somewhat oppressive, bleak and not particularly inviting once you arrive.

The interview sessions yielded a number of first insights and ideas that could be adopted to improve visiting days at the prison, but the overwhelming sensation we all experienced was one of a ‘lack of humanity’. Not just in the sense of imagining what it must be like to have one’s freedom taken away or being incarcerated, but the absence of a smile or friendly face that makes one feel loved.

Although this might seem insignificant depending on your outlook on our penal system, and perhaps somewhat tangential to our design brief, for us it was quite distressing and something we felt needed addressing.

And so the students built a prototype room back in their studio where fellow Schumacher colleagues experienced what it might be like to arrive at a prison waiting room; where strict rules are imposed, where there is a lack of information, where you are discouraged from any interaction with other visitors, and you wait until eventually someone in authority decides it is time to move on.

‘Controlled behaviour’ is one of the fundamental rules and principles you may expect to find in prisons. Of course, there is a strong rational argument that supports such structured behaviour; justified perhaps in terms of our understanding of reform, prison efficacy and maybe societal/cultural expectations. But what if it could be otherwise?

Our students began to explore ways in which the project might also involve the prisons, guards and support staff in the process, a shared activity that might begin to gently explore and rethink the notion of ‘control’.

Everyone who was involved in the event was transformed by the experience.

Luckily, for us the prison Governor, Bridie Oakes-Richards, seemed very open to creative opportunities that might improve prison life, particularly if the ideas might discourage prisoners from reoffending. She has already introduced several ‘educational’ programmes that help prisoners develop skills, qualifications and general interests.

Our students took a leap of faith and asked the question – 'Can we invite prisoners to participate in our project and improve the experience their families and friends encountered when they visit?' We were not expecting her answer - ‘Yes of course’ - came back with such energy and invitation that this (working alongside the prisoners) would now become the essence and central focus for our project.

After a little bit more planning the students designed a two-day experience where we – prisoners, prison staff and eco design students would create an interactive mural in the spaces the visitors would encounter. Equipped with a plan, a design scheme based on surrounding Dartmoor landscape, some eco-friendly paint and a few brushes, we spent 2 amazing days at Dartmoor prison. Everyone who was involved in the event was transformed by the experience.

There are many personal stories, most of which celebrate a wonderful sense of humanity felt by the exercise of working along-side each other. Moira Brooke-Williams from the charity, Choices, which supports families and friends of prisoners, and helped coordinate the project said “As for me I think it was one my best days in the job - something I wasn’t expecting.”

But a memory that I think we all cherished and perhaps one unexpected outcome to the project was a comment shared by a prisoner during our closing circle. He had taught himself to paint water colours whilst serving his time. He kindly spent one afternoon teaching a few of our students how to paint.

His comments and reflection related to the fact that he had not experienced in prison a sense of self-worth; he had a talent and skill that he now felt he could gift to others. When he shared his story with us, we all felt a sense of humility and an air of humanity filled the room.

Roberto Fraquelli is a senior lecturer on MA Ecological Design Thinking.  You can find out more here