New Santa Barbara Jail Benefits All Through Humane Approach

By Bill Brown and Roger S. Lichtman    

The latest catchphrase in jail planning these days is “Normative Design.” What’s its meaning and why is it important?  Through history, jails and prisons were harsh environments.  The general public was under the misconception that one was to be punished once they arrived, despite the fact that most folks being held are constitutionally innocent due to being pre-adjudicated. The harsh cold, carceral caverns of yesteryear have, mostly when found to violate a detainee’s constitutional rights, become a thing of the past. There remain, however, some jails and prisons   that continue to challenge that edict.

In 1943 the renowned psychologist, Abraham Maslow, published his Hierarchy of Needs, which has since been widely accepted. The ascending levels include Physiological needs, such as food and shelter; Safety and Security needs, including freedom from fear; Love and Belonging needs, such as the need for friends and friendship, and the need for Esteem, including dignity, respect, achievement, purpose and recognition, and finally, Self-Actualization, which includes the needs for creation, beauty, unity, aesthetics and exploration. Historically, and even recently, jails and prisons could only provide the first level of need, and in some cases, the second. Beyond that it was happenstance. Until now, one might think that within the jail environment these needs only apply to those being incarcerated, but they apply equally to staff and visitors.

A jail’s environment can have a major influence on behavior. Not being able to provide for the aforementioned needs significantly increases levels of a person’s stress. According to Karen Lawson, MD of the University of Minnesota, stress has a powerful impact on one’s life. Not only can it affect mood, energy levels, relationships, and work performance, but stress can also cause and exacerbate a wide variety of health conditions.  She goes on to say, “The environment can influence mood. For example, the results of several research studies reveal that rooms with bright light, both natural and artificial, can improve health outcomes such as depression, agitation, and sleep.” In other words, the right environment can actually reduce stress levels.

It is common knowledge that stress can lead to serious health problems, including: Cardiovascular Disease, Digestive Disorders, Accelerated Aging, Decreased Immune Function, and others.  According to Dr. Lawson, ”One study that tracked over 68,000 healthy adults for eight years found that those who reported feeling constantly under strain and unable to cope, among other symptoms of chronic stress, were likelier to die of cardiovascular disease. The results of another study associated chronic stress with a 40-60% increased risk of coronary heart disease.”

Over one third of correctional officers suffer from PTSD; nearly twice the rate of military personnel.

The introduction of softer, sound absorbing materials, natural light, outdoor views, color, etc., – those  key elements that make for a more pleasant, livable, normative environment with no sacrifice to the safety and security of the detainees, staff and visitors – can  vastly improve not only living conditions, but can result in improved mental health as well.

Santa Barbara County, California, has an old traditional jail, and a recently designed and built, more normative facility to complement their antiquated structure. According to Sheriff Bill Brown, the members of the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office are proud of their state-of-the-art Northern Branch Jail (NBJ).  The NBJ was built to augment the old Main Jail, which was originally opened in 1971 and was a product of a bygone era. That jail was overcrowded from the first day it opened, and it was added onto so many times over the years that he dubbed it their version of the Winchester Mystery House.

Designing and building the new jail was a lengthy odyssey. It began as a quest for solutions to address significant and chronic overcrowding in the Main Jail but evolved into finding smarter and more effective ways to incarcerate and reform offenders, reduce recidivism, and make the community safer. The NBJ was designed by a diverse and extraordinary team of people, including architects, sheriff’s personnel ranging in rank from custody deputy to sheriff, jail experts, County General Services personnel and construction management professionals.

The first thing that strikes one about the Northern Branch Jail facility is it doesn’t resemble a jail. It blends Santa Barbara County’s traditional Spanish Mission-style architecture with modern correctional infrastructure. The striking front archway bears the Latin inscription, “Faber est quisque fortunae suae. This translates to, “Every person is the architect of their own destiny,” meaning that our lives are not governed by fortune or luck, but rather by our own decisions and actions. This phrase has been adopted as the jail’s theme, and appears prominently throughout the facility, projecting it as a safe harbor conducive to inspiration, learning and hope.

While the old Main Jail is traditional and linear, with rows of barred cells, the new facility contains no bars at all. The facility is bright, modern, clean and relatively quiet. It makes good use of natural light and unobstructed sight lines. Lots of glass was incorporated into each of the direct supervision housing units.  The focus is on detainee programming and personal growth. Numerous multi-purpose rooms are used by teachers, counselors, vocational presenters, and spiritual leaders to teach and guide inmates toward a better life.

The operations have been a tremendous success. Even nearly full, it is a quiet place with an environment having a calming effect on inmates, staff and visitors alike. Improved staff awareness and communication skills have been developed, as has increased programming participation by inmates. Sheriff’s Treatment Program counselors offer addiction treatment and self-improvement classes, and a partnership with the local community college provides inmates a way to obtain college credits for many career-focused educational classes.

At the ribbon-cutting of the Northern Branch Jail, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office ushered in a new era of corrections, supported by the new physical environment, with a more humane understanding, safer and effective way of holding people that now offers them tools and resources for personal growth, positive change, sobriety and life-long success. In other words, opportunities to achieve Maslow’s highest levels of need.

Bill Brown has served as Santa Barbara County’s Sheriff-Coroner since January 2007, and began his law enforcement career in 1977. Roger Lichtman, AIA, DBIA, is the senior vice president and justice lead for corrections and detention at AECOM and a longtime member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.  

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