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This Architect Specializes in Making Australian Prisons Pleasant

Kavan Applegate works to create small town environments within Australian prisons that replicate society and help prisoners transition back into the community.

by Max Rann
Sep 11 2015, 12:00am

Illustration by Carla Uriarte

This article appears in The Incarceration Issue , a special edition of VICE Australia.

Attica, Alcatraz, the Tower of London—prisons have always been grim. For most of us, keeping criminals in dark, nasty surroundings is easier to reconcile than somewhere like, say, IKEA.

But not for Kavan Applegate. He's a leading Australian prison architect whose recent portfolio includes a $200 million expansion of Ararat Prison in Victoria, Australia.

"You're in prison as punishment, not for punishment," Applegate says. Over his 20-odd years in the industry, the focus has shifted towards rehabilitation.

Applegate likens it to creating a small town within a prison. The idea is that prison environments replicate those in society, and that helps the transition back into the community.

This is a big change from 19th-century "strong box" prisons, which prioritized safety for people outside by ensuring prisoners stayed locked in.

"Regardless of how long people are in prison, the main focus should be that if they leave, they never come back," Applegate says. "Even for those rare few who won't be released, there's still benefit in moving them down the path of rehabilitation, especially for the people they're interacting with every day."

Scandinavia leads the nicer prisons vanguard, but Dr. Elizabeth Grant, a prison architecture expert at the University of Adelaide, says Australia has several "world-breaking" prisons. She notes West Kimberley Regional Prison along with Boronia Pre-release Centre for Women as two of our most forward-thinking facilities, and says their "normalizing" designs are the reason why.

According to Dr. Grant, Australia has historically emulated US and British prisons. She and Applegate both agree that it's these outdated facilities that are its worst. "We've still got people dying in prisons that were built in the 19th century," says Dr. Grant. "More modern design solutions could prevent these deaths."

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