Beyond Bars

A Danish Team Transformed the Prison Environment; But It Also Locked In on Security Requirement



Storstrøm Prison near Gundslev, Denmark

What if prisons were built to make inmates feel right at home? That's essentially the goal in Denmark. The country's correctional system completed a seven-year, US$160 million project last year near Gundslev, Denmark to deliver what architecture firm C.F. Møller calls the “world's most humane” maximum-security prison.

With a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, the Storstrøm Prison—Denmark's second largest—eschews conventional cellblock confinement. Instead of a single large structure, the prison has 10 buildings that cover about 35,000 square meters (377,000 square feet) and are arranged like a small village to replicate the real-world environment inmates will encounter when they're freed. For example, housing units for the 250 inmates surround communal facilities, such as a gym, grocery store, library, church and playground for inmate visitors. Project sponsor Danish Prison and Probation Service believes Storstrøm Prison's environment will help inmates re-acclimate to everyday life and reduce the country's recidivism rate.

“We wanted to develop a prison that supports the prisoners’ physical and mental well-being while helping them re-enter society,” says Claus Dalsgaard Nielsen, project manager, C.F. Møller, Copenhagen, Denmark. “We also needed to create a safe environment for the staff.”

Managing those competing requirements—humaneness and security—put the project team to the test. It had to connect with stakeholders from all ranks of Denmark's prison system to develop, refine and implement a plan that captured the sponsor's idealistic vision.




“We tried to rethink prisons from within and see them from the viewpoint of the prisoners.”

—Mads Mandrup Hansen, partner and architect, C.F. Møller, Aarhus, Denmark


Home Away From Home

2010: Danish Prison and Probation Service awards the contract to build the Storstrøm Prison to C.F. Møller and Ramboll engineers.

2011: Team and client begin to study and visit prisons and consult with prison staff to develop the design.

2013: Client approves final design.

2014: Construction phase begins.

2015: Construction delayed by challenges involving contractors and environmental risks.

2017: Storstrøm Prison opens.


The project team developed its facility design approach by researching how prisons are designed in other countries—and then doing the opposite. For example, one prison warden explained to the team that, after a few years in a conventional prison, prisoners break down psychologically, destroying their chances of rehabilitation.

“But he said you can build prisoners’ confidence and respect through their surroundings,” says Mads Mandrup Hansen, partner and architect, C.F. Møller, Aarhus, Denmark. Gathering insights from prison officials in other countries helped support the team's decision to create an environment akin to the world that inmates ultimately will rejoin.

For instance, the typical United Kingdom and United States prison cells—dark rectangular boxes—inspired the team to create cells that feature a floor-to-ceiling window that angles outward. The angled design helps capture more sunlight and preserves a degree of privacy for inmates, Mr. Dalsgaard Nielsen says. In the end, each space resembles a college dormitory room more than a traditional prison cell: Every 3.7-square-meter (40-square-foot) cell has a bed, desk, reading lamp, private bathroom, refrigerator, TV and wardrobe. The cells are aligned in clusters of four to seven so the inmates residing in them can share a living room and kitchen, where they make their own meals.

“We tried to rethink prisons from within and see them from the viewpoint of the prisoners,” Mr. Hansen says. “We gave this tough environment a soft, humane lining.”



Claus Dalsgaard Nielsen, project manager, C.F. Møller

Location: Copenhagen, Denmark

Experience: 20 years

Other notable projects:

img L-Bygget, a residential and office building in Oslo, Norway, completed in 2009. Mr. Dalsgaard Nielsen served as architect and project manager.

img Fornebu 8.5, a residential building in Oslo, Norway, completed in 2006. Mr. Dalsgaard Nielsen served as project architect.

Career lesson learned: “This project taught me that a good collaboration between the client and project team is crucial to get great results both aesthetically and functionally.”



The sponsor and other key stakeholders made it clear that the unorthodox village-centric design couldn't sacrifice the project's top requirement: the security and safety of prison staff. To ensure it didn't overlook any security gaps during the design phase, Mr. Hansen's team regularly conducted half-day and full-day meetings with the sponsor to share and discuss virtual and physical models of the facility. The project team also solicited feedback from experienced prison staff and toured other prisons with them in Denmark and beyond to identify security needs.

For instance, after the team met with staff members at another Danish prison that had a similar village-oriented design, they learned that its prison staff felt isolated because of long distances between the various sections of the prison. This created less inclusive relations between the staff internally in their respective stations. So the Storstrøm team decided to place its buildings closer together.

The team also tweaked its design to meet a request from guards and other prison workers who wanted clear sightlines of the inmates from their desks and guard stations. For instance, on one end of each cluster of cells, staff members sit at a desk that's completely open—no bars or protective glass. The design allows guards to easily see the hallway, cell doors and common areas. Yet in the case of a possible security problem, guards can close cell doors remotely, and they have close access to escape routes.


“We learned that the more you signal segregation between the staff and inmates, the less successful the rehabilitation of the inmates is. So we created a sense of openness between the two worlds,” Mr. Hansen says.

The team incorporated conventional security features in the design by designing hallways and stairways that only staff members can access. And it installed a lockdown system that allows guards to close a unit of cells or even just one cell in the case of an emergency, such as a fight.


Locking in the proper construction resources turned out to be another obstacle for the project team. The organization most qualified to build the facility, Copenhagen's Ramboll, won the engineering and construction contract. But it couldn't supply enough workers to complete construction within the project's planned two-year timeline. So the project team collaborated with Ramboll to choose local craftsmen in Gundslev to serve as subcontractors. The extra time spent securing and managing the construction workers forced the team to extend the construction phase by nearly a year.

As a trade-off to ensure the extra time didn't affect the budget, the project team had to find ways to cut costs in the final design. “We revisited any design elements we could to try and save money, and we chose less expensive materials than the original design called for,” Mr. Hansen says.

When making cost-cutting design changes, the team prioritized elements that would have the least impact on the strategic goal of creating a prisoner-centric environment. For instance, the team sourced less costly stones to clad some exteriors. It reduced the length of a perimeter wall, which cut the cost of the wall and corresponding landscaping. And while the team had planned to cover and paint the concrete walls where inmates held technical skills workshops, it ultimately decided to leave the raw concrete exposed and unpainted to save costs.

“It was possible for us to make the cuts and keep our vision,” Mr. Dalsgaard Nielsen says.

Now the prison staff feels safe—and inmates feel more connected to the world they hope to rejoin, Mr. Hansen says.

“We wanted to give inmates the sensation of normality as much as possible within prison walls, so that when they return to society, they've been living in something that mirrors it.” PM


“We wanted to give inmates the sensation of normality as much as possible within prison walls, so that when they return to society, they've been living in something that mirrors it.”

—Mads Mandrup Hansen



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