The following information was taken from the Humanizing Correctional Facilities White Paper, an in-depth resource regarding the relatively new concept of humanizing or normalizing correctional facilities. This approach aims to make these environments more residential in nature — including correctional furniture — opposed to the historically stark prison spaces we have come to know. In doing so, research shows that correctional facilities may decrease inmate violence, reduce stress among staff, reduce recidivism, help the incarcerated re-enter society with a higher success rate, among other positive benefits.
Correctional facilities in the United States haven’t been completely barren of opportunities for prisoners to improve their lives while they are incarcerated and once they are released. Opportunities to get GEDs, job skills and mental health services are commonplace in many facilities. However, the normalization of the actual environment – the act of making spaces more residential and humanized – is a relatively new concept and one that is slowly being explored in this country.
Below, architects, interior designers, correctional officials and others who are involved in the construction of jails and prisons can find a few of the ways in which they can make their environments more normalized in nature, therefore leading to lower recidivism rates and making facilities safer, among other benefits.
Stark gray has been the color of choice for years in correctional facilities. Part of that mentality was to create uninviting places that were, in fact, part of the punishment. After all, what could be more unsettling about your environment than spending every day in a facility that was void of color?
So why is color so important?
“The majority of us experience our worlds – and many of our dreams as well – in full spectrum color. Therefore, I’m very confident that your physiological response in a 100 percent, monochromatic grey room within a 100 percent grey world would be a diminished one,” Tara Rae Hill, founder of LittleFISH Think Tank, said.
Color plays a role on all surfaces and elements, Hill said. This includes floors, walls, ceilings, furniture, cabinetry, privacy panels and other areas.
“However, this does not mean that every element must be an expressive hue, which actually should not be the case,” Hill said. “It does mean, however, that all items should be given conscious thought and consideration regarding their design and color.”
Paul T. Chastant II, AIA, Senior Project Manager at HDR Architecture adds:
“Color is part of the environment. You can read study after study after study that says environment has little effect on the outcome. But most of us believe, especially those of us in the design world, that color and harmony have a very strong effect on how people react or act within an area. Harmonizing or bringing all those colors into an organized palette seems to relax everyone.”
If you have to be inside, nothing can connect you to the outside world as much windows and the illuminating natural light that pours through them. And aside from feeling connected, there are health benefits to natural lighting, too.
The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2014 published the “Impact of Windows and Daylight Exposure on Overall Health and Sleep Quality of Office Workers: A Case-Control Pilot Study” which found that office workers who worked within higher levels of light exposure sleep better, participated in more physical activity and had an overall better quality of life than those with a smaller amount of exposure to natural light.
According to the study’s authors, “We suggest that architectural design of office environments should place more emphasis on sufficient daylight exposure of the workers in order to promote office workers’ health and well-being.”
Although not a corrections-related research, the study clearer indicates that natural light has a direct impact on wellness. Therefore, logic tells us that it only makes sense that the same conclusion probably would be found in prisons and jails. Remember the quote from earlier in this document: “If you treat inmates like humans, they will act like humans.”
Correctional furniture sometimes can be a secondary consideration in the design of detention facilities. Architects and correctional officials have always been more concerned about the size of cells, the safety of common areas and the monitoring systems that keep these environments secure.
“In the past, it appeared that the furniture was its own thing in correctional facilities. It had its own form. Its own color. We would design an environment and the furniture was just something we had to make do with,” Pam Maynard, Director of Interior Architecture for HMC Architects, said.
Fast forward to today and there is a noticeable trend in making furniture more residential and aesthetically pleasing in corrections environments. Chair arms and backs have curved corners. Proper height leads to easier egress. Tables have high-impact laminate tops which, aside from being attractive, are much quieter than metal tables and can help create a calmer and controlled environment, while soothing colors from nature are slowly replacing the stark grays.
That doesn’t mean that the furniture is becoming softer, too. It may just seem that way at first. When properly manufactured, this kind of correctional furniture can have the extreme durability, safety and security needed for these sometimes tough environments.
Many pieces allow for ballasting to ensure the product isn’t moved or used as a weapon, while other proper corrections furniture is designed with suicide prevention in mind and is built with no ligature points.
Additionally, beds and tables that appear residential in nature can be floor-anchored and made of highly durable polymer that is tested for maximum durability. All of this has the obvious intention of reducing stress in environments that often are filled with tension and violence.
Maynard said research shows that images of nature have a positive effect on those who view them. In fact, she points to studies that show that patients who have surgeries in healthcare settings have faster recovery times and less need for pain medication if they see an image of nature after their procedure, opposed to a blank, white wall.
She said that she and colleagues are taking this research – along with the research from Europe that shows that artwork is a positive influence in prisons and jails – and are implementing artwork to help create relaxed and therapeutic environments in correctional facilities. It also helps inmates imagine themselves outside of where they currently are.
“When you talk about views of nature, you talk about being able to look outside of your current condition,” Maynard said. “You might have a scene of an ocean, or you might have a scene of the forest. And you’re able to sit and kind of daydream about ‘what can my life be?’ I’m not just within four walls. What can I imagine my life to be when I am somewhere else?” she said.
Much like images of nature, aesthetically pleasing landscaping can provide a mental escape and residential appeal on the grounds outside of a correctional facility. This is especially true when the landscaping mirrors the natural habitat of the surrounding region where the facility is located.
While walking in the yard or on pathways, inmates can be exposed to flowers, bushes, applicable stones (which cannot be moved) – opposed to stark concrete walls. These therapeutic views can provide them with experiences that can help them relax, which as previously mentioned, can translate into better relationships with staff and help create a better facility in general.
Additionally, in some correctional facilities, inmates can take part in the planting and maintenance of the landscaping, or in some cases, a garden.
For example, since 1993 the Cook County Sheriff’s Department has maintained a vegetable garden where inmates work during the summer months.
“Over those same 17 years, we have shipped more than 50 tons of fresh produce to homeless shelters and other deserving non-profit organizations; involved more than 400 inmates in hands on learning in horticulture, from planting to harvesting; and, since the year 2000, officially certified more than 200 of those inmates as Master Gardeners following classroom instruction and on site testing,” according to the office’s website.
With the technology and security protocols that are available today, technology is yet another way to keep inmates connected to the outside world. Additionally, keeping up with trends in technology while incarcerated will make the learning curve a little less steep once they are released into a world of tablets, smartphones, online banking, social media and other advances that we have made during the past 20 years.
Although not widely accepted yet, some prisons and jails across the country allow inmates to have supervised use of the internet. This access allows inmates to educate themselves, have a voice in the world that they would not otherwise have and, again, provides the real world technology skills that so many more jobs require today than they did 15-20 years ago.
Another technology that has made its way into correctional facilities is mp3 players. According to a 2013 article by Spin Magazine, those little devices that turned the music industry upside down and killed off CDs are slowly making their way into correctional facilities and into the hands of inmates. In fact, the article reported that between 15-30 percent of those incarcerated at the Idaho Correctional Institution in Orofino have the devices. The players are “electronically imprinted with the name of the inmate who bought it” to deter theft, and songs are stored in centralized systems called “Music Wardens,” according to the article. The article points out that mp3 players keep inmates occupied and cut down on contraband since cassettes and CDs become obsolete.
And although not necessarily a new technology, another way to enhance inmate life is video visitation. These systems use technology that allows inmates and their family/friends to see and communicate with each other through monitors and/or other electronic devices while each party is at a different location or facility.
Proponents say the benefits of video visitation include reduction in costs for facilities; online registration and scheduling improve ease and accessibility for visitors; more visits can be conducted and visitation hours expanded without additional staff; there is a decrease in contraband transfer between visitor and inmate since each party is at a different location; law enforcement officials can monitor conversations and gather evidence regarding criminal behavior.
It should be noted, however, that video visitation is often best used as a compliment to in-person visits and not as a replacement. In-person visits allow inmates and loved ones to connect with each other in a way they couldn’t through a screen. However, many families whose loved ones are incarcerated far away may not have the means to travel great distances. In cases such as this, especially when young children would otherwise go long periods without seeing a parent, video visitation is a viable visitation option.
Working with reputable architects, planners and designers who have experience in the corrections field will help ensure that you are not putting anyone at risk while trying to humanize your spaces. And to recap, humanizing correctional facilities makes sense for the following reasons: