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It’s the Simple Things: Basic Issues in Correctional Architecture
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Kaplan University
Published: 06/27/2016

As the body of knowledge in the corrections field has become increasingly sophisticated over the years, various advances have spilled over into multiple disciplines that impact corrections. One of those disciplines is architecture and the design of correctional facilities. For decades the first concern of correctional architecture was security. While security is (and should remain) the priority, research has increasingly demonstrated that security is more than just cellblock design, automation, and security vestibules.

Evidence-based design (EBD) had its genesis in healthcare architecture and later spread into the design of education, commercial, recreational, and office spaces. As the name suggests, EBD uses studies of user behaviors and environmental impacts to guide design choices. For example, in museums research shows that between 70 and 80 percent of museum patrons turn right when entering a gallery. In grocery stores, shoppers tend to spend more when the store’s customer circulation is clockwise. Schoolchildren perform from 7 to 18 percent better on tests in classrooms with large amounts of natural light. In recent years, research into EBD in the correctional setting—some of it sponsored by the National Institute of Corrections—has demonstrated very real environmental impacts on conditions and outcomes in jails and prisons. For all the sophistication of EBD, however, three rather fundamental design issues have substantial effects on both staff and inmates, and by extension on the overall operation of the facility and on outcomes.

The first is noise. It is hardly a secret that noise levels increase stress. Research on the subject aside, anyone who has experienced prolonged exposure to elevated noise has probably learned this fact firsthand. However, correctional facilities have numerous factors contributing to high noise levels. For one, large, cavernous spaces and vast expanses of hard surfaces produce long reverberation times. Reverberation time is an acoustic concept formally defined as the time required for a sound to decay by 60 decibels. Many sound-absorbent materials (carpeting, curtains, fabric furniture) yield a short reverberation time, which while it can be a positive also produces “dead” acoustics and difficulty understanding speech. At the other extreme, a near-lack of absorbent surfaces—the condition found in most correctional facilities—means that noise “builds” as new sounds are added to previous sounds that have not yet died out.

Such noise conditions have both practical and psychological effects. Trying to communicate accurately in such conditions becomes difficult because of the hodge-podge of sounds bouncing around the space. Worse yet, noise that is both variable and uncontrollable creates the worst possible set of conditions. Those exposed to a high but steady noise level, such as might be encountered in a factory, can compensate with hearing protection, and the mind employs a mechanism called sensory gating, in which a persistent stimulus (for example, a loud noise or unpleasant odor) is eventually “ignored” by the brain. But the mind has little defense against variable and uncontrollable noise.

Obviously, any task that requires concentration, from completing written reports to studying to conducting a counseling session, becomes significantly more difficult in a such a noise environment. Such conditions have also been shown to reduce reading scores among children and to increase the likelihood of aggression and conflict as well as increasing antisocial behavior. Increased stress for both staff and inmates is the obvious outcome.

Another factor often taken for granted in most settings but problematic in a correctional facility is lighting. This includes both natural and artificial light. As mentioned previously, schoolchildren have been shown to perform better when exposed to large amounts of natural light. Healthcare studies have also shown that natural light has a significant impact on health. Yet because of security issues, large and numerous windows and skylights are in short supply in the average prison.

Even in spaces where natural light is not an option, artificial light can alleviate most of these issues as long as it is provided in sufficient quality and quantity. Good lighting is a practical necessity for staff to perform routine tasks and accomplish effective surveillance. In addition, proper light cycles are necessary for both staff and inmates to maintain normal circadian rhythms. While it is fairly obvious that sleep quality depends on darkness during sleep hours, the body also needs sufficient light during the day to “reset” properly at night—to enable the body to easily discern the transition from night to day, as it were. The impacts of poor sleep quality are well-documented: decreased cognitive performance, irritability, poorer health, increased risk of accidents, and so on. Good light quality is also important to staff members who must adjust to shift work.

Finally, less obvious than noise and light but also linked to the availability of natural light is access to nature. The average person would probably acknowledge that a nature setting is more relaxing and restorative than an urban (or indoor) one, but as it happens there is extensive empirical evidence confirming this observation. A 1995 study demonstrated that access to or even simply views of nature contributed to recovering from mentally-fatiguing experiences and coping with stress. Conversely, the absence of such access has been shown to increase aggression (both verbal and physical) and degrade problem-solving abilities. A 1986 study showed that inmates with access to nature views had fewer sick calls than the control group.

In 2009 the National Institute of Corrections co-sponsored a study that placed a nature mural in the intake area of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department. The department’s Main Adult Detention Facility already had a progressive intake design, designed in a “waiting room”-style (for cooperative arrestees) rather than more traditional holding cells and booking windows. While it proved impractical to assess stress levels of arrestees because of the equipment involved, the correctional staff who worked the booking area were evaluated. Once the mural was completed, the officers showed significantly reduced stress levels as measured by heart rate.

Many EBD features can only be incorporated into new facilities, especially given current budget constraints, but nature murals of the type used in the Sonoma County study are a relatively inexpensive and easily implemented step. Taken as a whole, EBD offers the potential to improve outcomes for offenders and improve working conditions for staff.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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