Design in Prison

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Images by Tom Willcocks

Design Against Crime Research Centre takes design-thinking into Serco’s HMP Thameside prison to develop resilience and empathy among inmates.

The research group at Central Saint Martins has devised and successfully implemented a ground-breaking design course for prison inmates, titled Makeright. The result, a series of bags with inmate-designed anti-theft components, will be sold at Sue Ryder in Camden with all profits going towards hospice and neurological care.

Makeright is unique not because it utilises the making skills of prison inmates but because it combines making and design skills. Over 8 weeks, students create anti-theft bags from beginning to end with user profiles and initial concepts through a series of iterations and prototyping.

“Unlike art, design doesn’t allow you to design just for yourself,” says Lorraine Gamman, Director of Design Against Crime, “You’re designing for another, it requires communication and empathy.”

There is a sense of restorative justice in convicted criminals designing anti-theft objects, but it goes beyond that. The inmates have natural creative talents even though such skills may have been put to questionable use. Visitors to Thameside pass a cabinet of makeshift weapons that have been confiscated from inmates. “What isn’t displayed are the ingenious things they make to hold their ID cards, to arrange their photographs or unpick the television aerial to get more channels,” says Gamman. Makeright’s challenge is to channel that energy and resourcefulness more positively.

Through initial collaboration with Praveen Nahar of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad at Unbox India, the idea of prison as a ‘creative hub’ was conceived. Success in securing funding from the AHRC followed and the first Makeright course took place in HMP Thameside in 2015. The educational materials developed on the course were then ‘tested’ at Sabarmati Jail in 2016 where they were found to work equally well.

The Makeright programme is co-delivered by two CSM alumni, Erika Renedo Illarregi and Pras Gunasekera alongside support from design graduate volunteers to facilitate workshops. Gunasekera, a graduate of MA Industrial Design at Central Saint Martins says: “I’m interested in how we can use design to stimulate debate. I’m not interested in making products but in the process and what collaboration does for people.” Gunasekera and Illarregi made their home at the textile workshop, becoming part of the everyday landscape at the prison.

A day within the Makeright programme is organised by a morning of sewing in which the inmates repair linens and fabrics, and build on their skills at the machines. The afternoon is when the designing takes place. The initial workshops dissect the various components of a bag as well as the creation of a user profile, building up the persona and scenario in which they are vulnerable to crime. Many of the inmates selected for Makeright are heading towards their resettlement, on the cusp of leaving the prison and one of the aims for the programme is to encourage empathic as well as entrepreneurial thinking.

In terms of process, Makeright emphasises the value of iteration. Inmates are asked to create several ideas, to be flexible and open to the challenges that come along. Within the sessions it is this openness and resilience that is hardest to nurture, but it is crucial to each inmate’s progress and is one of the most constructive skills for a life beyond the walls of the prison.

“It’s a labour of love,” says Gunasekera, “you have to be with them, you have to get them to let go.”

The process of revisiting and reworking designs is, for Gamman, a metaphor for something broader: “The notion that nothing is finished runs through Makeright: your’re not just a criminal, you can recycle material and change your life at the same time. That, to me, is the crux of it – recycling material, recycling negative old lives for positive new ones.”

As leader of prison industries at HMP Thameside, Keith Jarvis says: “Makeright is a breath of fresh air… Working with offenders on employment skills is not exactly revolutionary. But what is different with this course is that inmates learn design skills and knowledge that can be transferred to many aspects of their lives, not only for employment. Even before the Coates Review May 2016 recommendations, at HMP Thameside Serco has employed design graduates in our Textiles studio and pioneered a ‘graduate volunteering’ scheme with staff, students and alumni of University of the Arts London. Our Makeright learners are mentored one-to-one by UAL and other design volunteers, and this support helps inmates find ways to reduce re-offending.”

As one delivery of the programme gives way to the next, Makeright sees some its alumni become peer mentors for the new members. The initiative isn’t meant to produce a new generation of designers but nurture new skills for inmates to call upon when they leave prison. As Gamman says: “Worst case scenario, the guys learn to make bags and cushions. Best case scenario, they learn enterprise strategies that they can take through life.”

As Makeright became established in the rhythms of the prison, Gunasekera says some inmates found a particular comfort in the space of the workshop: “I’ve had so many men comment that it is a peaceful space for them. If we have to close the studio for some reason there are men who don’t want to go back to the wing. It’s a very different environment. There might be moment when it doesn’t feel like a prison. Then Erika and I might unlock the door and you’re pulled back to knowing where you are.”

The first collection has been completed, from a tote bag with a simple, secure flap to a shoulder bag with a design that encourages the wearer’s arm held against it for security. The designs are shared with inmates at Kilmarnock Prison to be manufactured, as its textile unit can more easily complete production runs. The bags are made up in lorry tarpaulin donated by Abel & Cole has been overprinted with a design by CSM Graphic Design graduate, Claire Matthews. Trimmed with black woven tape the bags are individual, stylish and practical.

Across three prisons and two continents, Makeright has taken many hours, many hands and engaged with graduate volunteers going into prisons for the first time, to bring produce these anti-theft bags. With the first cycle nearly complete, from design and prototype to production and sale, now is the time to celebrate its achievement and build on it for the future.

“My plan is not only to democratise innovation and encourage inmates to work with their creativity, but also to take new types of people into prison. As Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” We have to take in different types of people and different types of thinking. It’s part of a slow revolution to change it.” Lorraine Gamman.

The success of the project so far has led to strong inmate feedback and a British Council INDIA-UK Excellence Award for Collaborations in Higher Education under the ‘Innovative Partnerships’ category.

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