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Hope Street as seen from the road

“There are too many things missing in the justice system for women. One is, in general, the justice system doesn’t focus on women. And the second thing, it isn’t just,” explains Dr. Stephanie Covington, a trauma and addiction specialist and expert advisor for One Small Thing, a U.K. non-profit targeting prison reform. Founded in 2014 by Lady Edwina Grosvenor in response to rising self-harm, suicide and violence in women’s prisons, the organization is on a mission to redesign the current justice system, educate prison residents and staff about the impact of trauma and how to respond to it and influence policy change. Its latest endeavour, Hope Street, a rehabilitation facility for women serving short-term sentences, designed by Snug Architects, is a remarkable manifestation of what these changes could look like in practice — and recently won RIBA’s prestigious MacEwan Award for projects centred on social good.

Sixty per cent of women receiving short prison sentences in England and Wales are mothers, many of whom have committed a non-violent offence and therefore pose less risk to the community. Nonetheless, in places like Southampton, these women routinely serve their sentence over 100 kilometres from home, leading to extended periods of separation from their children, who often end up in foster care. Just a few weeks later, these mothers are left without a family, a home, and the support needed to rebuild their lives. Given these unique factors, Southampton was flagged as the preferred location for Hope Street in order to make the greatest possible impact.

Person sitting at bench, inset into a brick building

Equal parts residential community and rehabilitation facility, the pilot project aims to take a root-cause approach to prison reform. Acting as a safe place for women to serve their sentences while keeping families together (where deemed appropriate based on individual assessments), it offers a radical alternative to the current justice system. “There’s lots of things that need to change within the prison system, but what we’re hearing loud and clear from staff is that they want to be able to work in more humane ways. The problem is the system is not designed to be humane,” says Lady Edwina.

Entrance to brick building

This humanity is at the core of Hope Street, in both its mission and its architecture. Here, women have access to a range of trauma-informed specialists including mental health, domestic abuse and substance use services, and individually tailored programs. In theory, by reducing the number of women unnecessarily going to prison — and by extension preventing maternal separation and the intergenerational trauma it causes — Hope Street will help mitigate crime in the first place. At the end of their twelve-week stay, women can move to one of the organization’s eleven Hope Houses in order to prepare for their return home, and ongoing outreach ensures they are supported by the local community in the long term.

Atrium at Hope Street

Hope Street’s trauma-informed approach goes beyond programming — it is deeply embedded in the building’s design. Given that many women in the prison system have themselves been victims of neglect, abuse and trauma, Snug Architects knew the importance of creating a healing environment that would avoid common triggers. “Trauma-informed design starts with recognizing that all buildings have an effect on people and communicate all the time. They communicate what is considered important, how people should be treated, who is in power, how you should behave and if people can be trusted, amongst many other things,” they explain. For this reason, the architects consulted those with lived experience in the prison system, service providers, local community members and stakeholders to inform their design approach.

Cafe with green tiled bar

For women entering the justice system, many of whom are skeptical of state institutions, building trust is of the utmost importance — and according to Snug Architects, it starts with the first impression. To that end, they opted for a complete rethink of what a prison should look like, conceiving of the project as a home, rather than a facility. From the street, the two-storey brick-clad CLT building appears at first as a cluster of three houses, breaking the larger form down into a more human scale. The architects considered every detail, no matter how small: the round wooden handle on the front door feels homely and familiar, rather than institutional.

Counselling room at Hope Street

A secondary entrance allows for a less public transition from policy custody into the comfortable intake room. The interiors, inspired by the hospitality-driven design of Maggie’s Centres, feel generous yet intimate, filled with natural light, and the finishes are warm and residential, immediately putting residents at ease. In the Hope Suite, a counselling room, the wood structure is left exposed, lending warmth to the double-height space, which has been compared to a chapel. “There is a spiritual element to it,” says Lady Edwina. Meanwhile, a fireplace in the main lounge offers both a design focal point and a key gathering place for residents. The architects also considered acoustic needs, maximizing absorption to make it easier and less traumatic for women to disclose sensitive information.

Communal kitchen with white seating and wooden tables

The complex is staffed 24 hours a day, but instead of CCTV and security checkpoints, which can be triggering, the architects used careful spatial planning to facilitate natural surveillance while incorporating areas for privacy, allowing women to move around freely and feel at home. The design plays with contrast, juxtaposing the deep CLT walls, which convey a fortress-like sense of safety, with glazing that offers views across the space, contributing to its sense of openness.

Glazed seating area as seen from staircase

While communal amenities like the coffee shop, kitchen, lounge and activity rooms are located near the street, the residential units — eight shared flats including bedrooms, kitchens and living spaces, that can accommodate up to 24 women and their children — are securely tucked away at the back of the property. The bedroom balconies overlook the landscaped courtyard at the building’s core, offering connection to nature and a calming sanctuary for the women.

Courtyard at Hope Street

Through its design, Hope Street sends a message that the women who live there are not alone. Visiting areas allow residents to commune with family in a private setting, and One Small Thing bought the house next door to build a nursery for the children who live there, ensuring their care throughout their mother’s stay. The ground floor includes a publicly accessible café (which will employ residents) and areas for group activities such as fitness classes, connecting the women to their community while also reducing shame and stigma.

Person sitting at bench, inset into a brick building

“Hope Street is the only project that almost had me crying… we hear of the architect as being a doctor of space and this is an example of architecture that is healing people,” said MacEwan Award judge Alex Scott-Whitby. As the first initiative of its kind in the U.K., learnings from the Hope Street pilot project will be used as a “blueprint for national systems change,” and hopefully inspire similar initiatives. Though the building was designed to be reused if needed (as a women’s shelter or drug rehab facility, for example) its early success signals that it is here to stay — and that perhaps, the organization’s goal to redesign the justice system is more attainable than it seems.

Hope Street Signals a Paradigm Shift for the U.K. Justice System

The women’s rehabilitation facility, which recently won RIBA’s MacEwan Award for social good, was designed with a trauma-informed approach.

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