Behind and
Beyond Bars



People convicted of crimes are put behind bars as punishment and to be denied freedoms. But shouldn’t they also be able to use that time to reform, educate and rehabilitate themselves?

Recent trends suggest there’s been a rise in criminal justice efforts to counter recidivism – when former offenders are convicted of more crimes. If newly released inmates are only walking through a revolving door back into prison, do correctional facilities ever correct anything or anyone?

Inmates must prepare to adjust to a world that will have changed a lot since they were last in it. Some are seeking alternative ways to communicate with family members and friends in an institution that limits such personal contact. Some must learn to re-socialize themselves back to a law-abiding life. And most must overcome a nagging sense of low self-esteem and worthiness.

The following developments show how good design and strategy are just as relevant to prisons as they are to schools, hospitals and other public institutions.


A Colorado prison uses training and mentorships to prepare inmates for life on the outside. The three-year early release program considers candidates who were convicted as juveniles and have been incarcerated for more than 20 years. So far everyone’s favorite aspect of the program has been interactive VR lessons developed by NSENA, a tech firm that aims to bring VR training to law enforcement and corrections professionals. The inmates learn simple, real-world tasks like doing laundry, using a debit card and bagging groceries at self-service checkouts. One such “ex-convict-in-training” was especially surprised about the grocery store scenario. “I didn’t know there was that much trust in the world to check out your own stuff,” he exclaimed, to which his coach said matter-of-factly, “Yeah, there’s usually someone standing around but by and large you will scan and bag your groceries yourself.”

The interactive activity may not seem like much but it means a lot to inmates with long term prison sentences who’ve missed nearly a quarter century’s worth of technological, infrastructural and economic advancements in the outside world. The situation reminds me of convict Brooks from “The Shawshank Redemption” who thought “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.”


How ironic that prisoners are using VR to escape a lifetime of violence while on the other side of the wall we play violent VR video games with abandon. 


Every day, family visitors of Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn leave signs and messages on a wall. But this isn’t just any wall: It’s a warehouse that directly faces the cells of the federal jail housing their incarcerated relatives and loved ones. Handwritten, taped, printed in plastic or decorated with balloons, the signs come in many forms but essentially say the same thing: Stay strong. We got this. At some point this activity became interactive. Now the prisoners respond to loved ones looking up at their cell windows with flickering miniature flashlights they purchased in the commissary. 

The jail warden knows about the wall and doesn’t endorse it but doesn’t try to stop it either, because the jail “encourages inmates to maintain family ties.” One can’t help but appreciate the psychological effect the messages have on the inmates and whether it boosts their morale, helping them to remain calm and cooperate with prison guards.


Storstrøm Prison, a new maximum-security prison in Denmark, is trying to change inmate behavior with architecture. Complete with a grocery store, library, furnished living area, shared kitchens, workshop rooms and individual cells, the place looks more like a communal township than your typical prison. The prison’s “re-socializing” policy aligns with an approach Scandinavian countries emphasize: focusing on rehabilitation. According to architect Mads Mandrup, “If the ambition is never to see the same inmate twice, this seems to be a model for a modern prison where there is a strong correlation between rehabilitation programming and architecture.”


Naysayers and proponents of the “tough-on-crime” approach would probably oppose the improvement of public correctional facilities because it uses the taxpayer’s dollar to rehabilitate criminals. Corporations have turned private prisons into cash cows by keeping as many people behind bars at as little cost as possible. Repeat offenders are good for a company’s bottom line.

But if privatization in criminal justice remains a necessary evil, brands need to use technology, art, architecture and beauty to disrupt prisons and reduce recidivism rates instead of profiting from them. Perhaps a wiser way for companies to be involved in criminal justice systems is not to make money from incarcerating criminals but to focus on their ability to re-enter society once they’ve paid their dues and stepped back into the real world.

More Thoughts.

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