Elevating People, Health, and Wellness through Sustainability

By Brooke Martin

Building sustainable practices into secure environments has been a long-time goal for state and federal governments. In 2011, the National Institute of Corrections published The Greening of Corrections: Creating a Sustainable System, which called for incremental holistic steps and strategies towards a more sustainable approach. Eleven years later, on Earth Day in 2022, the Prison Policy Initiative published an article about society’s call for healthier environments given that incarcerated populations are often excluded. Many correctional facilities are still being constructed on sites that were donated to the community, county, or state due to challenging site conditions, such as location, topography, soils, and toxicity, within or near industrial areas. Earth Island’s 2017 report notes that 32% of state and federal prisons are in a three-mile radius of federal SuperFund Sites, which contain high levels of contamination. This means that not only are those incarcerated living on unhealthy sites, but the staff are also exposed to the same contaminants.

Let’s explore sustainability in other terms than its more well-known definition of “thinking green”.

In 2020, the American Institute of Architects’ Academy of Architecture for Justice knowledge community published a white paper, Sustainable Justice 2040: Green Guide to Justice, that incorporates emerging themes of pandemic response, racial equity, and the role of the justice system in a just society in the year 2040. It explains that justice can be viewed through a sustainable lens at three scales:

1 | The scale of community: Protect community safety by responding to harmful behavior with evidence-based approaches and philosophy that is restorative and transformative, emphasizing treatment over punishment, and focuses on improved outcomes rather than retribution – with the end goal of a positive community impact.

2 | The scale of building: Emergent hybrid buildings and systems blur the boundaries between law enforcement, courts, detention, corrections, and healthcare facilities to implement effective ways to address needs and to deliver positive outcomes. Structures supporting the justice system are sited, constructed, and operated to maximize resource utilization and to reduce net resource consumption and pollution to zero creating a healthy, net-positive impact on the community and the environment.

3 | The scale of individual: The physical needs, health, dignity, and human potential of all who come in contact with the justice system are respected and given opportunity to flourish. This applies equally to staff, detainees, visitors, service providers, media, jurors, and support agencies.

Sustainability of the Individual

Data from the National Library of Medicine reveals that 11 million people within corrections globally are considered forgotten or invisible populations due to their increasing healthcare needs being negatively impacted by opposing political, economic, environmental, social, and personal choices in how they lived before being incarcerated. In 2015, the United Nations developed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to improve worldwide health for all. These goals range from good health and well-being, to quality education, to no poverty, focused on enabling healthy lives and promoting well-being for all. The 2021 white paper reviewing these 17 SDGs, “Leaving No one Behind in Prison: Improving the Health of People in Prison as a Key Contributor to Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals 2030” sends out a call to leave no person behind, and explores how investing and advancing the health of those incarcerated can contribute to achieving at least 15 of the 17 SDGs, which is in line with many nations’ goals of healthcare as a human right.

Steps to Build Sustainable Health and Wellness within Existing and New Facilities

Establishing best practices for sustainable health and wellness programs can help guide justice facilities towards improved conditions for inmates and staff. A few best practices include:

  • Food: Improve nutrition with dietary options for both those incarcerated and staff.
  • Elevate access to care: Increase in-house services, including spiritual, and treatments (medical exams, dentistry, optometry, mental health services, behavioral health services, podiatry, labs/testing, dialysis, infusion, chemotherapy, physical therapy, skilled nursing beds, post-op beds, quarantine beds).
  • Created specialized, supportive, and incentivized areas for Serious Mental Illness (SMI) populations: This can take place in the form of acute stabilization beds, SMI step-down units with Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) programming, dementia units with walking paths, and units specialized in caring for those with suicide ideation and self-harm disorders.
  • Treatment and education: Educate those with drug use history on how to cope with their disease.
  • Nature: Review how the facility can connect deeper with nature for both those incarcerated and for staff.
  • Healthy environments: Review sanitization and cleaning operations to create safe, clean, and healthy spaces.
  • Relationships: Review how individual and family relationships can be better supported within the secure environment. Studies have shown that people who have improved relationship with loved ones with strong ties back to their community are healthier.

When reviewing the opportunities, threats, weaknesses, and strengths to achieving correctional health, it begins with the institution, the political and fiscal support or lack of support, and the current economy. Many institutions since the pandemic have been elevating care by improving their existing healthcare (medical, dental, mental/behavioral health) through renovations and additions to expand treatment services in-house and increase healthcare staffing. Good health is not a given, but we can work to build and maintain it.

Brooke Martin, AIA, CCHP, NCARB, LEED GA, is an associate and architect for Dewberry’s justice practice, and is based in Peoria, Illinois. bmartin@dewberry.com

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Correctional News.