Focus on Rehabilitation Drives Normative Shift

By Doug Beichley

Departments of Corrections across the country have consistently increased and changed the methods, programs, and educational opportunities they offer at correctional facilities with the ultimate goal of reducing recidivism. The difference in recent trends is that those changes now extend to the physical environments, increasingly mirroring attributes seen in behavioral health facilities—and further underscoring the importance of mental health to overall rehabilitation. From adjusting the design to maximize function to creating more spaces for programs, correctional facilities are responding to a multitude of factors, including COVID-19 and social reform.

Shift in Form and Function

Many new trends in correctional facilities are being driven by society and recent prison reform that administrators and designers are responding to. The pleas to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate are being heard, and the result is a shift to more normative environments that promote social interaction and mental health—a transformation that can aid in reducing recidivism and helping to prepare the residents for a more productive future.

To directly address this need, the form and function of new design trends in correctional facilities are being transformed in many ways today. With an emphasis on more rehabilitation, spaces for programs that assist with the process of rehabilitation are being programmed into new facilities. Classroom spaces and multiuse areas are included in building space programs and floorplans to accommodate the increased need.

Correctional facilities are now more than ever designed to meet the needs of the judicial system, law enforcement, social agencies, mental health agencies, and families.  For example, several correctional facilities are now incorporating either small courtrooms for initial hearings, or at least spaces for video arraignments and wider use of video conferencing between judges, accused offenders, attorneys and law enforcement. Maricopa County in Arizona recently opened a new correctional facility that has four courtrooms located near the intake area, which are readily used for initial hearings. “Integrating small courtrooms into correctional facility design allows operations to run more efficiently,” said former Deputy Chief Brian Lee, “Rather than transporting accused offenders to the county courthouse a few miles away, they can schedule the initial hearings in much less time, requiring less staff for transporting and ultimately leading to less cost.”

Another benefit of constructing these courtrooms is limiting stays for those awaiting arraignment. Thanks to the courtrooms inside correctional facilities, the average stays for these individuals have been reduced substantially, sometimes in less than half the time it took in the past.  Other correctional facilities are either programming similar spaces into their new facilities or trying to renovate to accommodate video arraignments or small courtrooms if space allows.

Focus on Safety and Mental Health

Safety and wellness of law enforcement personnel is paramount in correctional facilities.  By changing a few procedures, such as the video arraignments, the need to transport offenders is reduced, thus limiting the number of times an officer is put into a potentially disruptive situation for an accused offender. Part of an emphasis on safety that goes along with newer normative environments includes wellness areas within correctional facilities programs.  Wellness spaces can range from a staff lounge to a strength and conditioning center, all the way to a full gymnasium.  As some prison populations are decreasing, space is being converted to accommodate a weight room or a small gym, so officers can have a positive break from their stressful jobs and get in better physical condition.

The focus on wellness does not stop with the law enforcement personnel and corrections officers; it extends to incarcerated individuals as well. Mental health awareness has shed new light on correctional facilities programming and space allocation.  More area is being programmed for substance abuse and mental health programs, and it has been noted that many of these types of offenders can be treated successfully outside of a correctional facility by use of counseling, house arrest, and rehabilitation programs.  This can ultimately result in less beds needed in the current correctional facilities and those being constructed in the future, saving cost while allowing more space for these rehabilitative areas.

One size does not fit all.  There will still be a need for harder security and materials for those unruly offenders, however for some of the cooperative individuals the normative environments can help with their transition to a productive life in society.

Impacts to Design and Construction

There are a variety of design elements that can help create a more normative environment in correctional facilities. Designers are trying to incorporate as much natural light as is possible and practical.  Clerestory light and skylights are alternatives that are more readily utilized and can still be secure if necessary. “Many studies have shown that natural light has health benefits from providing Vitamin D all the way to improving mood, sleep, and reducing stress,” said Michael Comer, Vice President, Justice. “Another benefit of introducing more natural light into correctional facilities is the reduction in the amount of lighting and electricity used during the daylight hours, which results in lower energy costs.”

In addition to more natural light, interior designers are making changes to the color palettes and furniture to create warmer, more welcoming environments than the typical cold, sterile ones of the past. “We’re seeing softer forms and brighter colors for polyethene furniture in dayrooms and classrooms, where stainless steel bolted down furniture was the norm,” said Comer. “To go along with that, interior color schemes are becoming brighter and more welcoming than the earth tones used in the past, and artwork in many forms is now being introduced and designed into the facilities to add a refreshing element to the interior design.”

Some facilities are also making changes to the materials to create an enhanced environment. The Northwest and West regions are seeing a rise in the use of wood timber construction in juvenile and minimum-security facilities to soften up the look of the interiors. Should the upswing become more widespread, it will be crucial to analyze any impacts to the supply line issues for these materials, but most are readily available and may save time and money over the traditional concrete and steel commonly used in the past.

Acoustics also are important to consider.  Adding acoustic panels to walls or ceilings help reduce the reverberation from the typical hard concrete masonry, precast or metal panels used for durability.  Without treating these surfaces with some form of acoustical treatment, the residents can experience higher levels of anxiety.  Using angled or curved walls can also help reflect noise and reduce reverberation.

A Healthy Connection

The parallels between mental health and the connections to environment are becoming more apparent, pushing correctional facility owners and operators to take a page from recent trends in behavioral health.  By designing behavioral health and mental health facilities within correctional facilities with more attention to the details of color, acoustics, lighting, air movement and furniture design, architects, interior designers, engineers and contractors can make a difference in reducing recidivism and helping to create environments that are more conducive to rehabilitation.

Doug Beichley serves as JE Dunn’s Justice Design Manager.

Editor’s Note: This expert piece originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Correctional News.