What Keeps Me Up At Night – Where’s the Evidence for Evidence-Based Design in Corrections?


Evidence-based design is the meticulous, precise and sensible application of research in the design of a secure environment that yields operational safety, security, efficacy and sustainability. It contributes to inmate rehabilitation, supports staff retention and recruitment and delivers measurable reductions in the rate of recidivism and cost of inmate care.

The evidence-based design process is still relatively new in the healthcare industry, but they are working with a viable database that includes more than 1,000 studies of what works and what does not. The correctional industry is just beginning to follow suit.

While the American Correctional Association continues to develop performance-based standards — a philosophical cousin to evidence-based design — our industry needs to adopt evidence-based design practices in a manner similar to the healthcare industry. We must develop a sound knowledge pool and informational database for secure facility design.

The practice of evidence-based design requires technical expertise and a commitment to retrieving, interpreting, applying and communicating the results of scientific studies and the risks and benefits of different courses of action in programs and architecture.

Event Horizon

Similar to the green movement that is taking hold in our industry today, many believe an evidence-based evolution is afoot in the design of secure justice facilities.

To sustain this evolution, we will need more evidence-based design pioneers to work with federal, state and local jurisdictions to create specific methodologies to weigh evidence and develop specific guidelines for justice programs.

Critics of evidence-based design in correctional facilities posit the lack of controlled testing, absence of stipulated goal-oriented perspectives and lack of measurable benefits will undermine the viability and hinder the growth of evidence-based design.

Until more data is gathered and validated, an efficacious study of architectural and operational programs and comparative analysis of results remain impossible.

I cannot begin to explain the challenges involved with defining the possible industry-specific metrics necessary to develop evidence-based concepts for corrections.

Unlike the healthcare market, a host of sometimes conflicting factors — geographical, programmatic, administrative, inmate classification and length of stay — are at play for evidence-based design in the correctional setting.

Also, questions remain about the degree to which studies can transcend different jurisdictions. While green building design is well-suited to global performance guidelines, we must approach evidenced-based design in corrections with an eye toward regional differences.

The methodology for weighing evidence can be standardized, but we should develop a geographically specific database tailored to populations and sentencing structures to source operational, programmatic and design data and outcomes. The next and most important step is to develop a substantial body of indisputable evidence.

Where Is Our Database?

I read somewhere that upon entering a certain Ivy League school medical students are told, “Half of what you will learn is wrong, but we don’t yet know which half.” The same statement could be applied to evidence-based design in corrections.

Programmatically and architecturally speaking, there are probably 100 or more reputable research studies regarding evidenced-based design in the secure environment. As evidence is gathered and new studies are published, today’s decisions may turn out to be wrong tomorrow.

A 2006 Washington State Institute for Public Policy article on evidence-based adult corrections programs found that, while some studies were well-designed and delivered valid results, others were not and raised questions of validity, reliability and replicability, negatively impacting the confidence placed in the findings and conclusions.

Conscientious department of corrections supervisors, sheriffs, architects, programmers and planners will be able to get a good night’s sleep only if they increase the percentage of design decisions based on interdisciplinary consultation, discussion and collaboration in conjunction with the evidence-based design research at hand.

Evidence-based design cannot be a unilateral process. Every proposed action should be questioned and critiqued.

Practical Methodology

Programmatic concepts have been tested and some data exists. The hard part is gathering it all together in your jurisdiction. Given the almost endless potential sources of information, there is always a temptation to reach conclusions about design implications based on narrow, speculative studies.

We need to be disciplined, making recommendations based solely on investigation and evidence.

One thing is certain, evidence-based design will offer complex and sometimes contradictory findings, encouraging continuous testing of new ideas and concepts across the United States. These are exciting times. The clear case for design linked to positive performance results and economies in the healthcare industry suggests that the trend toward evidence-based design is vital to the future of the correctional industry.

Evidence-based design should enable the corrections industry to become a more significant part of a rehabilitative system of care and treatment. However, there will also need to be an industrywide re-evaluation of correctional philosophies.

The architect’s role is crucial in translating emerging research into functional designs and as compelling evidence solidifies in support of its efficacy, design professionals also have a responsibility to make the case for the applicability of evidence-based design in the world of corrections.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The goal of evidence-based design is to develop a compendium of information from which design professionals, facility managers and owners can make informed design decisions based on conclusions derived from facility research.

Conclusions must:

  • Have practical application
  • Result in a demonstrated improvement in a defined area
  • Have measurable outcomes relative to issues (economic, psychological, staff performance, recidivism, etc.)
  • Consider other outcomes (positive and negative) as viewed from different perspectives — staff safety vs. budget or recidivism vs. security

Consider whether information is based on a controlled scientific study with well-defined parameters that produces outcomes and conclusions or on anecdotal information and operational observations, with little concern for or reference to other perspectives and/or outcomes.

We know the evidence-based design process works particularly well in the healthcare field. It appeals to physicians, who practice based on medical evidence, by enhancing patient care and clinical outcomes, and the bottom-line imperatives of hospital administrators by reducing costs and improving organizational effectiveness. It aids hospital boards in making financially critical strategic operational decisions and it benefits public consumer groups and those paying the bills as they seek effective, lower-cost healthcare.

Like the healthcare industry, with each new facility we plan and every renovation we propose, we must consider designing to the evidence.

Because evidence-based design is all about creating therapeutic, efficient and restorative environments for staff and inmates, it will change how we run our prisons and jails in fundamental ways.

We saw similar outcomes with the advent of direct supervision and we need to remember that our evidence-based design must lead to an appreciation of the facility’s contribution to overall costs and performance, care and custody, rehabilitation and re-entry. Once we can do all that, I may get a good night’s sleep.

Gregory J. Offner is vice president of DMJM – AECOM in Arlington, Va. He is a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.