Navigating the Drivers Within Trauma-Informed Design Decisions

By Jeff Goodale

Trauma is woven into the tapestry of life in correctional facilities and healing must become woven into the same tapestry. People so often come into the situation because of trauma that it almost seems like a prerequisite – post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction, and other mental illnesses triggered by trauma-based pathology. Nobody is born a criminal, they commit crimes as a response to neglect, abuse, and broken families. Studies have shown that the number one thing that men in prison had in common was a father-absent household—a circumstance that affected as many as 95-97%. There are so many issues that stem from this type of background, with an impact that can last a lifetime.

For people who are already in the system, the goal is for them to come out better—with a job skill or with their mental illness stabilized or their addiction under control. This cannot be achieved if they spend all their time sitting in a hardened facility meditating on what has caused them to be incarcerated. While that may make the public feel better, it doesn’t do anything to actually help the individuals in question. Trauma-informed design seeks to stop prison from being a training ground for criminal behavior and instead become a place for people to pause and reflect, and ultimately to find redemption through rehabilitation and healing.

Sometimes, it requires an effort to convince members of the public to stray from the traditional, punitive design for a correctional facility to something nicer. Trauma-informed design leaders would urge people with those questions to take a step back and consider what the project is trying to accomplish. The goal is to help people turn their lives around and become better, as well as reduce recidivism. People who are successful in a trauma-informed program are able to rejoin society, find jobs, and be reunited with their families, which is a better outcome for everyone.


Sometimes the simplest things that people in the rest of society take for granted—such as temperature modulation—can be a major differentiator in a correctional facility. An example facility in Vermont dealt with the question of air conditioning. There was a lot of pushback on why prisoners should have it when many working class people do not. Creating a harsh environment simply for the sake of harshness doesn’t help anyone. People who are focused on their physical discomfort become harder, more resentful, contemptuous and suspicious, and it exacerbates existing challenges with mental illness. Trauma-informed design, by contrast, focuses on the goal—which is making the time they served count for something by returning people to society in a better state. Traditional prison designs do the opposite and make people’s outlook worse.

One of the key factors for success in trauma- informed design is to give people some sort of autonomy in their lives by providing at least some freedom of movement and control over their schedules. While they may not have full use of the facility, they do have choices about where they can go at various times. Connecting with other people in a meaningful way is another key to success. In a correctional facility, the only other people besides inmates are the staff, who are often behind glass, in posts, or otherwise obviously separate. Being able to see and talk with the people who are in management humanizes the experience for everyone, and builds respect that is natural, not forced.

Encouraging more normalized spaces overall, with wood doors, carpet, and relatively soft furniture is one of the groundbreaking concepts of trauma-informed design where small changes can make a huge difference. A recent example in Nashville is exemplary of this concept. The unit is assigned to people on a voluntary, non-custody basis, allowing them to avoid jail and transition into out-patient treatment through this facility. There are counseling programs, access to outdoor space, skylights, normal furniture, and no high-security doors. The spaces are also designed to be more communal.

There are security concerns with some of these changes: Heavy, hard furnishings are also more difficult to move, throw or break out of and windows that would bring in welcome light and visual access to the outdoors present a risk of escape. There is a mindset change needed to accept these designs. There is also a cost factor, with little room in the budget for upgrades, and even resistance from financial decision makers who may like the status quo because it represents a traditional, punitive approach.


One way to start shifting the mindset is to make a commitment to direct supervision of the inmates, rather than remote. Direct supervision makes the connection between people who are in custody and the staff who are managing by removing barriers and encouraging communication that builds mutual respect. In many ways, this has more to do with the management style than the actual facility itself.

One example in Indiana was an older facility, but as the design team toured the facility with a member of the staff, he stopped along the way and had conversations with the inmates, who he knew by name. Going out and interacting with the people, rather than hiding behind glass, made such a profound difference, even in a facility with an old-fashioned punitive design. As a result, the facility is relatively quiet with lower levels of violence and more interest in activities.

There are ways a facility can optimize direct supervision in a new design or renovation. Choosing a non-elevated versus elevated post is one and placing staff within the unit so they are accessible to residents by removing barriers—but still keeping them safe—is another key.

The residents still understand that there is someone in charge, but their role is more of manager than dictator. These steps create an architecture that is more normalized and less hardened in the lower-security facilities and areas within the facility where flexibility is possible.

Seemingly small aesthetic and human comfort changes can make a big difference—like anodized aluminum storefronts instead of detention hollow metal frame, which is heavy, rough, and hard to weld; and brighter, cleaner colors rather than institutional grays and browns.

Carpet, acoustical ceilings, and wood doors reduce the disruptive slamming and banging that is often associated with prisons, and even allowing biometric or password access for staff so that they do not have giant key rings that jangle when they walk can make a difference. The culmination of all of these elements can be triggering to someone who is traumatized by a harsh environment. Even smells, which are often overlooked in functional design, can be a trigger. The typical prison smell of burnt food, cleaning chemicals, mold, and body odor is depressing—simple creature comforts like clean showers and modern air handling can reduce odor and air quality issues that can impede personal growth.

Spaces that are more easily navigable, with fewer layers of glass partitions and corridors, allow occupants to self-direct wherever possible. For example, if they have a class at 10:00, it makes a big difference if they can watch the time themselves and walk to class when ready, rather than having a staff member tap them on the shoulder and walk them to class. Having control over self and environment wherever possible is key. The ability to connect with loved ones outside of prison more often using technology helps keep hope alive for inmates and is especially welcome for women prisoners to communicate with their children.

Because of overpopulation challenges, efficiency has been highly sought after for many years in prison design. While they have followed the rules, such as ACA standards, many designs are just barely bigger than the minimum and the smallest possible spaces represented ingenuity in design. In fact, larger spaces with more daylight controls the population in a different way by rehabilitating inmates and reducing recidivism over time. Normalized spaces can also be less expensive, with standard ceilings costing less than institutional ones, and less emphasis on expensive security technology. Less is more when it comes to creating a secure environment that isn’t overtly secure.

There is also a personal cost associated with harsh environments and the effect they have on the mental health of occupants. In one facility without air conditioning, inmates have multiple fans purchased from commissary blowing over ice cubes to cool their spaces. Simple changes like energy-efficient windows and central A/C would reduce the stress and fatigue of focusing constantly on the physical discomfort and trying to rectify it. Being able to control the lights when it is time to sleep is another tool for stress reduction. Many older facilities have lights on constantly, which disrupts circadian rhythms and contributes to depression.

Navigating the drivers within trauma-informed decisions helps to change the way we think about “needs” versus “wants” for a living environment and can reframe some of the things that are taken away from those in custody as being essential to their mental health and recovery. Personal autonomy, a more normalized environment, and opportunities to engage with one another and the outside world are all critical in helping them to overcome past trauma and lead better lives once their incarceration is over, which is really the goal for individuals and society.

Jeff Goodale, AIA, ACA, is director of HOK’s global Justice group. He can be reached at