Students design better prison education

20 Apr 2017

Two students have risen to the challenge of designing for prison environments, with the help of learners at HMP Cardiff. PET invited Alex Whelan and Reece Elder, who study Product Design at Cardiff Metropolitan University, to develop initiatives that would make it easier for prisoners to study in their cell. As their final show approaches, both students have nearly finished their prototypes: Reece has designed a durable tablet device, while Alex has created a box that stores education material and also doubles up as a writing desk. Both students visited HMP Cardiff as part of their research process, where they learned more about the environment their designs would fit into, and spoke to learners about the challenges of studying in a prison environment.  

The Tablet

Reece’s tablet has been built around the restrictions and security concerns of the prison world. It is battery powered to allow for the lack of charging ports in-cell; has few physical points of entry making it almost impossible to take apart, and is transparent so it cannot be used to store things.  

The tablet would allow people to study from preloaded PDFs, use multimedia downloaded from education providers, and access their own preloaded media, as well as filling out prison forms. A closed network for Cloud access would enable communication between the education department and the user. The tablet uses a simple, accessible interface, and has a wrist strap to make it easier to use from a bed.  

Aesthetically, the tablet may look clunky compared to an IPad, but this is part of the point, says Reece. “It’s not designed to be a sleek and aesthetic object but instead as a bulky and strong functional object,” he says. “Some functions that make sense outside of prison had to be sacrificed. Because it was so essential that the object couldn’t be broken or taken apart, you ended up sacrificing how easy it would be to fix.”

But the device is also a way of circumventing some of the restrictions in prisons, says Reece. “One thing that stuck me when I started looking into prisons is the lack of free movement to take advantages of opportunities,” he says. “By streamlining the education process through digitalisation more people can be given the opportunity to have an education.”

When Reece came up with his design, he was unaware of plans to introduce tablets into some prisons in England and Wales. “It shows my outside-of-the-box approach wasn’t outside-of-the-box at all,” he says. “I imagined the device wouldn’t be in use for the next 10 years, but in fact prisons are developing faster than I imagined.”

Coming up with a design that would work in a restrictive prison environment was difficult, says Reece. “But doing so could make a huge positive difference to people who aren’t given enough recognition in society.”


The Box/Writing Desk

Alex has designed a way for learners to store and transport PET’s study pack, which was given as part of a pilot project to all distance learners learners in Welsh prisons last year, and includes a study skills book and a dictionary. In Alex’s words, it resembles a “sturdy toolbox”, embossed with the PET logo. It is blow-moulded, which makes it cheaper and more durable, and attractive for prison budgets.

Its lid can be tilted upwards, to use as a surface to write on. This idea, says Alex, stems from architecture desks and art table tops that can be propped up to help people draw at better angles. This part of the design was influenced by his visit HMP Cardiff, where he met learners who did not have a hard surface to work on.

Alex abandoned some of his more creative ideas during the design process, including the concept of a pair of mock handcuffs, which would be attached to the box and which would be programmed to release once the person had answered a certain amount of questions. Instead, he opted for a gentler form of encouragement: a recording device attached to the box on which could be uploaded with messages from friends and family; or advice from a distance learning tutor.

“The limitations of designing for a prison context restricted my ideas for the pack, but I learnt a lot about prison life, which I never would have known before embarking on this project,” says Alex. “What I like most about the box is that it is personal to whoever possesses it, and can be used to privately store and organise things.”