Life Behind Bars: How Design Can Reach Out To Prisoners

Life Behind Bars: How Design Can Reach Out To Prisoners

Life Behind Bars: How Design Can Reach Out To Prisoners

Published March 14, 2018

Alice Demurtas
Photos by
Courstesy of Búi Bjartmar Aðalsteinsson

There aren’t that many people in the Litla Hraun prison located in Eyrarbakki, on the South coast of Iceland—less than a 100. Theirs is a tedious life: if there is something to do this month, there might not be in two weeks time.

Last summer, however, prisoners were presented with an opportunity that is likely to shake things up and have long-term benefits on their personal life. Local designer Búi Bjartmar Aðalsteinsson (best known for creating an insect-based protein bar) has in fact organised a long-term design project aimed at teaching prisoners unique skills useful for their future life in society.

Being open to creativity

“So many people who are now in prison are likely to relapse in addiction or crime and end up behind bars a second time,” Búi explains. “With this project, we wanted to see if we could find a way to prevent that.” The prisoners already have access to well-equipped workshops where they can work paper, wood and metal, but the jobs are scarce and unstructured. As prison guards have little time for tête-à-tête teaching sessions, these workshops have great potential that is completely untapped.

“It was important for us to provide projects that built up skills as well as a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

“It was important for us to provide projects that built up skills as well as a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment,” Búi says. “Most of the objects require basic techniques but since prisoners all have different levels of skills, they can start small and then build on that, be open to creativity, and explore the boundaries of a project.” While the designers have limited creative control on the prisoners, they can still facilitate the learning process by providing a clear set of instructions and teaching them face to face.

“The hope is that they’ll build up a portfolio which will then be useful as they re-enter society,” Búí explains. “Once they know how a workshop works, mechanically speaking, it’s easier for them find a job later on.”

Finding a purpose

Similar projects are undertaken in other countries both in prisons and in refugee centres with the purpose of giving individuals the tool to adjust to society, and while small creative projects had been implemented in the local prisons, Búi’s project seems to be much more ambitious.

“Ultimately, it wants to show that there is an active place for design within society.”

Ultimately, it wants to show that there is an active place for design within society, a potential that can find fulfilment in our collective needs. Not only is the project organised on a long-term scale, but it’s also less focused on the product and more on the learning process. It’s also flexible, as it can adjust to the necessities of time, avoiding the risk of fostering obsolete ideas.

Búi has yet to figure out how the prisoners will sell their products, a small selection of which will be showcased during DesignMarch, from mini wooden automobiles to hand-made chess boards. However, he’s also confident that the financial revenue can go straight back into sourcing materials for more projects, helping this project grow in the future the way it deserves.

The final products will be showcased during Design March on Aðalstræti 2, from the 15th to the 18th of March.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!

Go travel with Grapevine tried and recommended tours by Grapevine. Fund Grapevine journalism by booking with us.


Show Me More!