Inclusive Design for Correctional Facilities

By Kristine Bishop Johnson, Michele Hutchinson and Ryan Rohlfs

Three HOK Justice designers examine a day in the life of a neurodivergent resident and correctional officer, suggesting six specific design opportunities to enhance rehabilitation and employee retention.

Correctional facilities are more than just buildings. They are human habitats that profoundly affect the well-being and rehabilitation of those who live and work within their walls.

A high percentage of the incarcerated population has neurodivergent conditions, often struggling to acclimate to the highly structured conditions in detention or correctional centers. Addressing their specific needs through inclusive design strategies is essential, and ultimately, these strategies benefit everyone—even those not overtly impacted by neurodiversity issues.

Inclusive design strategies are essential for several reasons:

  • Environmental sensitivity: Thoughtful design elements establish supportive environments for individuals with heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and space.
  • Communication and social interaction challenges: Spaces promoting social engagement enhance participation in rehabilitation programs.
  • Equity and justice: Catering to neurodivergent residents’ requirements ensures equal opportunities for successful reintegration into society.

It can be a challenge to staff correctional facilities, with some states even resorting to National Guard deployment for assistance. Addressing the welfare of the workforce through inclusive design attracts and retains talent, enhancing their overall wellness.

Balancing the paradox of offering choices within the stringent confines of a correctional facility is a nuanced task. The trick is to strike a balance between security and spaces that offer some personal autonomy.

Through the lens of inclusive design, this article explores how HOK’s Justice designers approach six key touchpoints to enhance the lives of neurodivergent individuals throughout their day.

Morning: Intake and Assessment Spaces

The sun rises, casting its first light upon the correctional facility and signaling the start of a new day. Inside, individuals with diverse backgrounds and needs navigate the challenges of their daily routines. Among them are neurodivergent residents and staff, each with unique support and accommodation requirements.

A new resident, Jordan, arrives. Diagnosed with autism, Jordan struggles with sensory overload and communication challenges. The intake and assessment process is crucial for individuals like Jordan. To minimize anxiety, the facility’s designers have incorporated sensory-friendly waiting areas, noise reduction features, adjustable lighting, calming colors, and comfortable seating. The open space ensures that Jordan feels safe under observation.

Intake is a critical touchpoint, often high-stress with various stimuli. Misinterpreting neurodivergent behavior, complicated by comorbidities, can lead to improper placement. Designers must prioritize this initial interaction for inclusive, supportive settings.

Clear wayfinding and signage help Jordan navigate the unfamiliar environment. Separate intake interview rooms offer privacy and soundproofing. Staff members are trained in neurodiversity awareness, which helps them assess and classify Jordan to ensure appropriate support throughout his incarceration.

Mid-Morning: Housing Units and Dayrooms

Jordan enters his housing unit, where inclusive designs prioritize neurodivergent needs. His room features integrated window shades, adjustable lighting, and soundproofing for sensory regulation and relaxation. Dayrooms have ample natural light and access to protected, landscaped outdoor recreation areas.

Dayrooms offer a variety of seating arrangements, from individual seats for personal space to group seating for collaboration or socializing. Seating areas arranged along a partial or full wall allow Jordan to feel safe because his back is not exposed. The warm wood-toned ceiling, which varies in height, adds a non-institutional atmosphere. Adaptable sensory rooms, with dimmable lights and sensory tools including weighted blankets, fidget spinners, noise-canceling headphones, tactile objects, and lava lamps, cater to Jordan’s needs. Observation strategies enhance security.

Lunchtime: Dining Areas

Mealtime can be challenging for neurodivergent individuals like Jordan due to sensory sensitivities. The dining area features ample space between tables and seating areas, access to daylight to regulate circadian rhythm and noise reduction to create a more relaxed dining experience. Varied seating options, clear signage, visual barriers, and designated sensory-friendly dining areas also are available to Jordan.

Afternoon: Treatment Spaces and Classrooms

For rehabilitation and education, Jordan attends flexible classrooms accommodating neurodivergent learners. Adjustable layouts and lighting cater to diverse styles and groups. Visual supports depict nature, while natural light optimizes the environment. Sensory tools and respite rooms aid self-regulation. Outdoor areas provide fresh air and relaxation.

Late Afternoon: Sensory Rooms

After a day filled with activities and social interactions, Jordan seeks solace in the facility’s sensory room for safe relaxation. This calming space offers adjustable stimuli and comfortable seating options. Aromatherapy and visual stimulation enhance the experience, while sound masking devices and music speakers help manage unwanted noise.

Tactile elements like felt or composite wall panels and fidget spinners engage the sense of touch. Gustatory options include flavored water, mints, gum, and various snacks cater to Jordan’s sensory needs.

Clear wayfinding and signage make it easy for Jordan to locate the sensory room, while accessible design accommodates residents with mobility challenges.

Evening: Staff Spaces and Workstations 

For neurodivergent staff members like Rebecca, who has ADHD, inclusive design strategies create supportive work environments. Quiet zones separate from the incarcerated population provide a peaceful retreat for staff needing to recharge or decompress after a stressful interaction. Adjustable lighting and flexible workspaces cater to diverse working preferences.

Ergonomic furniture in staff areas improves comfort during long work hours, and access to natural light, fitness centers, and outdoor spaces positively impacts mental health and overall well-being. Dedicated training facilities ensure that staff like Rebecca can effectively support the incarcerated population and their colleagues.

The Transformative Power of Inclusive Design

The pursuit of an inclusive, equitable justice system is an ongoing challenge. As neurodiversity awareness grows, so must efforts to create accommodating environments.

Designers can make a difference through inclusive strategies empowering neurodivergent individuals. Focusing on touchpoints like intake areas, housing units, dining spaces, treatment rooms, and staff areas dramatically enhances the experiences of these individuals.

Paying close attention to details such as lighting, noise reduction, seating arrangements, and sensory tools enables designers to create spaces that accommodate the unique needs of neurodivergent residents and staff. This supports rehabilitation, social interactions, and qualified staff retention.

Adopting inclusive design strategies within all types of justice facilities—including detention and correctional facilities, courthouses, and law enforcement facilities—paves the way for a more inclusive, compassionate future. This notion that we can catalyze reform and equity is a powerful inspiration for designers.

Kristine Bishop Johnson is a director of Justice, Michele Hutchinson is a senior project interior designer and Ryan Rohlfs is a senior project architect at HOK.

Note: Portions of this article describe composite experiences of fictional neurodiverse individuals. Neurodiversity is a term used to describe a broad range of conditions, some of which likely will be unresponsive to design solutions. HOK’s approach to inclusive design is based on our experience as designers and architects with the objective of providing a wide range of options for users with different needs. Any attempt to address the needs of neurodiverse individuals should also include review of human resources policies, implementation of technology solutions and building operations among other considerations. HOK does not represent that any design solution discussed in this article is capable of achieving any specific outcome for an individual user. 

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the September/October issue of Correctional News.