The idea of tailoring architecture to the requirements of a prison is by no means new - most famously the Panopticon design by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham has been the blueprint for many prisons since the late 1800s. A new Vertical Prison concept is not as draconian in its ambitions with its aim of rehabilitating prisoners by allowing them to remain a part of society and allow them to contribute to it, while using height as a wall to separate them from it.

The Vertical Prison was designed by Malaysian architecture students Chow Khoon Toong, Ong Tien Yee, and Beh Ssi Cze, and took first place in eVolo Magazine’s annual Skyscraper Competition. Their project examines the possibility of creating a prison-city in the sky, where the inmates would live in a “free” and productive community with agricultural fields, factories and recycling plants that would be operated by the offenders as a way to give back to the community and support the host city below them.

Recognizing that many prisons are nothing more than a school for criminals, the prison design aims to rehabilitate inmates by invoking a sense of community. In allowing the prison to become a part of the community and form a symbiotic relationship with the it, the designers also believe that the social stigma of a prison would be softened resulting in greater acceptance of inmates and a better chance they will be given another opportunity upon re-entering society after their incarceration.

The Vertical Prison employs a modular design to maximize flexibility. A girder box structure is used to house a variety of different units and form a communal space. Inmates are housed in Cell Units that themselves can be customized with different "loopholes" or openings appropriate to the behavior or level of danger of the inmate. Depending on its location within a city the prison could include Agricultural Units to grow food for the city, Industrial Units to help in the recycling of industrial waste or Juvenile Units to scare kids straight.

Transport to and from the prison is via various pods that travel along the frames supporting the prison. Transport Pods are the primary transport vehicle and can also be used for daily surveillance. Heavy Lift Pods serve as vertical lift transport for delivering cargo to market or to transport other pods to the ground. Armored Riot Control Pods are armed with both lethal and non-lethal weapons as well as airdrop capabilities for keeping prisoners in check. Medevac Pods are equipped with airlift capabilities and paramedic equipment, while the Fire Rescue Pod also has air lift capabilities and fire-fighting apparatus.

Given the cost of such a system, not to mention the difficulty any city would face in trying to convince nearby residents a prison with no walls above their neighborhood is a good idea, it’s probably not likely we’ll see any Vertical Prisons appearing on city skylines anytime soon. But kudos to the designers for giving some serious thought into an equally serious problem.

Recidivism rates among prisoners suggest the system – in the US at least and the many countries with similar systems – is not working. In California, which has the highest recidivism rate in the US, seven out of ten prisoners return to prison within three years. That translates to a tremendous burden on the taxpayer. So if the new prison concept was found to be successful, ideas like it might not be as expensive in the long run as they first appear.

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