Design Roundtable: Three Top Architects Talk Trends and Promising Projects

By Zach Chouteau

To greet the new year for our annual design forum, CN checked in with a trio of design leaders to gain their insights on current trends, recent projects and what 2024 may have in store for correctional architecture.

Big thanks for their time and insights go to Brooke Martin, AIA, CCHP, NCARB, LEED GA, an associate and architect for Dewberry’s justice practice; Bruce Omtvedt, AIA, an associate principal and national leader for the Dewberry’s justice practice; and Beverly Prior, FAIA, NCARB, LEED A, a Vice President and Program Manager with AECOM.

With 2024 upon us, what do you think will be the most significant design trend this year with justice and correctional design?

Bruce O.: We see a strong focus on the creation of supportive professional work environments for staff members. Recent events have highlighted the challenges in recruitment and retention of staff members along with ever increasing rates of mental health issues (including PTSD and depression) and physical health concerns (including repetitive stress injuries and cardiovascular disease). Our designs must focus on providing wellness spaces for decompression, culture-building social spaces, training spaces for professional development, and support services, including social workers, therapists, chaplains, and medical staff. We are focused on creating environments that support health and wellness and enhance professional development and growth, maximize the return on investment in recruits, and increase staff retention that deepens and strengthens the professionalism and culture of the organization.

Beverly P.: I see the continued emergence of more political leaders and corrections leaders seeking to learn from the Scandinavia prison philosophy and to adapt their operations and facilities to translate that philosophy into the United States. Areas as diverse as Idaho, California, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Franklin County (Ohio), Washington, Oregon, and New York City are experimenting with new approaches including exchange programs and pilot projects that support staff training and facility redesign.

Having visited Norway and the Netherlands with NYC during their justice facilities planning process, it’s about an approach that puts human experience first with a focus on creating a caring environment. Of course, while a safe and secure environment is foundational, the Scandinavian tenets are focused on creating a more humanistic approach for every person who interacts with the justice system, whether they are correctional officers, people in custody, families, service providers, and victims. This is where healing and true rehabilitation can occur.

Can you tell us about a current or recent standout project that you and your firm have been involved with?

Brooke M.: Kentucky Department of Corrections’ New Medical Facility. Our Kentucky Department of Corrections’ New Medical Facility project addresses additional trends shaping the industry today as it relates to the broader provision of on-site health care and behavioral/mental health services within the secure housing facility. As it relates to physical well-being, there is a recognition within corrections administration, officers, and healthcare providers that there is a wide variety of specialized health treatment that patient inmates in secure facilities require. There is a movement within corrections and detention to provide more of these treatments within the facility to elevate access to care, provide more focused treatment, and to reduce the cost and security risks of transporting patients to off-site treatment facilities. As a result, on-site medical treatments are expanding to address the broad range of resident needs within the secure environment. In the Kentucky Department of Corrections facility, we are providing dialysis, chemotherapy/infusion, physical therapy, limited orthopedics, X-ray, podiatry, optometry, dental services, and skilled nursing.

As it relates to mental and behavioral health, we are also seeing a more in-depth and focused discussion on the need to address the specifics of mental and behavioral health issues. To date, the discussion in the industry has been broad regarding the number of mental and behavioral health residents who are housed in secure facilities. Currently, we are engaging in more focused discussions on the range of behaviors and resulting services needing to be addressed. That includes a focus on long-term resident patient care regarding dementia, serious mental illness (SMI), medication stabilization, and severe behavioral health issues (self-destructive behaviors), as well as addressing geriatric mobility needs. Environmental design includes universal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), acute stabilization units for those requiring medication stabilization, specialized dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) units, and activities of daily living (ADLs) for life-skills programmed units for those in custody with SMIs.

Beverly P.: Since 2019, I have worked as AECOM-Hill Joint Venture’s program manager on New York City’s Borough Based Jails justice reform program to close Rikers Island and open smaller, safer, more equitable jails, one each in the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Manhattan. This large public investment is intended to create facilities with improved lines of sight, a more modern layout, smaller housing units and better monitoring​; improved access for staff members, families, social services and community service providers; and increased quality programming to promote healing and rehabilitation​. Our role has been to translate the City’s aspirations for these new facilities into design criteria and then support procurement and implementation of the design-build teams. These mega-projects will require collaboration with the best partners our industry has to offer – justice specialists, high-rise designers, builders, and trade partners. We’re excited that as of June 2023, the first design-build jail facility for Brooklyn is under contract with Tutor Perini and HOK. We continue to expect great results as the industry collaborates to create these new facilities.

What do you enjoy most about being a member of the justice and corrections design community?

Brooke M.: As members of the justice design community, we can be advocates for the most vulnerable, marginalized, underserved, and traumatized individuals in our society. This is personally very rewarding and motivates our team to address the challenges of our justice system with a high level of passion and focus. The work we do is meaningful, addressing a range of serious societal needs that have become divisive, when instead, there could be a collective focus on the individuals in our community that are underserved, marginalized, and forgotten. People are a society’s primary asset and investment; significant effort should be given to supporting the successful integration of all citizens into our society.

Beverly P.: I love my colleagues in this community! I learn so much from you through regular participation in AIA justice and ACA facilities planning and design committee meetings. Attending architectural, industry, and client-focused conferences expand my thinking. Through sharing at these gatherings, tours of facilities, and inspiring speakers, I feel that I have become a better architect and leader with clients and their constituents. The national AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice Conference in Washington DC in November is an excellent example including the opening keynote by Chief Judge Timothy Evans of Cook County on the intersection between architecture and criminal justice reform, screening of Unguarded, a documentary film about a revolutionary prison system, speakers with lived prison experience, and an inspirational presentation on how biophilic design can reduce PTSD in first responders. Wow!

Is there a key word of advice you might have for someone new to the field of corrections design?

Bruce O.: 1. Embrace with confidence the fact that on each project we touch, it’s our opportunity to help. Be a part of creating spaces that encourage self-improvement, raise positivity, and visually connect the staff to engage with inmates to offer support, encourage pro-social behavior, and help inmates focus on rehabilitation and treatment in order to improve and re-enter the community. Understand that we need robust detention strength, but also strive to minimize the barriers and design for great interaction of occupants in each area. The path to successful re-entry in the community begins when a person has engaged with the justice system, and from intake, triage, and immediate assessment, we help define the spaces on a path back to the community.

  1. Be a sponge. Utilize every chance to learn from experienced mentors who can share the “why” of this niche design market. Learn both the technical construction techniques of detention grade construction, the codes, the physical barrier ratings, and the products available to solve it in new ways. Ask “why,” a lot a lot. Learn the space programming and adjacencies for successful operations. Corrections design is one of the most rewarding especially if you enjoy learning the why behind design and want to make an significant impact in the field.

There are incredible career opportunities to be the next generation of design leadership in architecture for secure environments!

Beverly P.: Of course, architects need to develop our basic knowledge of codes, materials, detailing, security, health and safety. However, we also need to develop our ability to understand the human effects of our design, especially in an environment rife with trauma for every constituent. As architects, we need to develop our ability to positively influence our clients (after all, influence is our most important contribution: a project’s budget, site, and scope do not belong to us.) So attend conferences, learn from colleagues, learn about human nature, learn to influence through indirect work, continue to expand your thinking, take opportunities to practice leadership through volunteering and participation in professional organizations. Look into trends that are not necessarily about justice but that could inspire new thinking. And have fun!

As we move past the pandemic, what do you think were some key lessons learned that can be applied to design in our industry moving forward?

Bruce O.: Providing flexibility to address the demands placed by a pandemic takes space, while the provision of a safe indoor environment requires properly filtered air, coupled with adequate amounts of supplemental fresh air. Today’s advances in building system controls and air monitoring technology provides us ample tools to address these needs.

In regard to the need for additional space, facilities and operations should be designed to provide the ability to safely quarantine group populations and offer options to isolate individuals with specialized medical issues from the rest of the population. Both needs require additional space. As a result, we are seeing a movement in housing populations towards smaller housing pods which provide greater flexibility in segregating groups one from another. While this provides flexibility to segregate populations it also drives an increase in facility size. Similarly, an increase in isolation cells adds to the square footage of a facility. The cost of these isolation cells is typically high, as they should be designed as negative pressure spaces with all their supply air being exhausted to the exterior. Additionally, we are recommending providing more space at check points and queuing areas to facilitate social distancing should that be necessary.

As it relates to indoor air quality, the pandemic highlighted the importance of properly zoning air flow in buildings. We define air flow zones within the building to minimize the contamination of air from one housing pod or building function to another. The pandemic also highlighted the need for greater air filtration to minimize the transfer of pathogens within these zones. MERV 13 filters, standard in hospitals prior to the pandemic, are now the default air filters in all secure housing projects. Additionally, we try to provide greater levels of fresh air into the system. This is always a careful balance as the introduction of large quantities of fresh air into a building requires the use of more energy to properly condition the air. We attempt to mitigate this by introducing heat recovery wheels to capture and reuse the energy from exhaust air. But the payback on this technique is somewhat limited and we are searching for better ways to address energy loss through exhausted air. Finally, to the greatest extent possible, the use of hands-free technologies is now the norm. Pathogen transfer by touch is a common way of spreading contagions. Increased focus is now being given to means to avoid the need to use touch-based control mechanisms for the operations of many common building systems.

Beverly P.: The pandemic hit about one year into my relocating to NYC to work on the Borough Based Jails. NYC was an early ground zero for Covid, so the shutdown was immediate and widespread. While I had been focused on planning the high-rise jails here, the irony was not lost on me that I was now personally experiencing being constrained and isolated in a small high-rise apartment with nowhere safe to go.

Here we are 3-1/2 years later, and while we may have survived physically, what impact did that experience of being shut down have on our emotional and mental health? So many mental health issues have revealed themselves since the pandemic among people who were considered healthy and stable. We are seeing in our families, communities and society how a period of isolation impacts our mood in the short-term but also has long-term consequences.

To be healthy and happy as humans, we thrive through physical and emotional contact with others, connection to nature, having a sense of personal agency, and a feeling of power over our experience. For those of us designing justice facilities, we now have lived experience of the effects of isolation. This represents a huge research and design opportunity to delve into human experience design to support empathy and understanding that de-escalates the trauma effects from isolation and lack of normalcy.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Correctional News.