A new approach to the architectural design of prison establishments

By Henry Pittner

The current prison justice system in the United States of punishment and punitive practices has made the country the world leader with more than 735,000 people held in county-run prisons, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center Report. Although prison design has evolved over the years from linear/intermittent surveillance to cluster/remote surveillance and cluster/direct surveillance, both of which prioritize safety and security, created environments maintain the carceral ethos, resulting in spaces that can be physically and psychologically harmful. .

Standard prison layouts typically have poor acoustics, little privacy, limited natural lighting with no view to the outdoors, harsh artificial lighting, few colors, hard materials like concrete and cinder blocks, and furniture institutional in fixed configurations that are not conducive to social activities. On top of that, the unsafe living conditions created by overcrowding, outdated facility design, and atypical living and interaction patterns are inherently detrimental to the mental health of inmates and staff.

A post-prison future in prison is about moving to a new paradigm – from punishing and punishing to healing and restoring, with the goal of enhancing the dignity and human worth of every resident.

When designing a new facility or improving an existing prison, a full range of environmental factors must be considered to prioritize the well-being of all building occupants, including inmates. , while maintaining safety and security.:

Smaller housing units

  • Increasingly, jurisdictions are moving away from larger accommodations in favor of smaller, more manageable ones. Earlier configurations of 32, 48 or 60 beds do not allow for adequate classification or separations and can lead to significant adverse effects. Under the new model, housing units are designed to accommodate 10-15 people, all of which are carefully categorized to meet compatibility and separation requirements while providing more intensive program opportunities.
  • An example of this type of change occurs at a 200-bed facility in Minnesota. It currently has two 60-bed accommodation units and six special management units ranging in size from 6 to 31 beds, offering up to 16 separations in total. At equal capacity, the new prison solution designed by my firm, BKV Group, offers 20 accommodation units with 10 beds each, allowing 40 possibilities of separation. Immediately adjacent to each day room are additional spaces for interviews and programs allowing for more interaction.

Indoor/outdoor connectivity

  • Prioritizing indoor/outdoor connectivity has proven to be restorative for those in detention. By promoting the human-nature relationship, it can provide cognitive benefits and improve emotional well-being and overall mental health.
  • The outdoor space should be connected to the common room and include a range of sensory experiences that are not usually offered to prisoners – for example, breathing fresh air, feeling the heat of the summer sun or the coolness of the a spring or fall breeze, see how the landscaping changes with each season, and hear the birds and other sounds of nature – all in a safe setting.

Improved day area

  • The common room, where inmates spend the majority of their waking hours, should act as an open concept with common dining and living areas that provide multiple settings for use throughout the day, reflecting life outside the institution.
  • Instead of a wedge-shaped room, a better configuration is to arrange the day room space as a modified hexagon, a shape that allows for much better sight lines from staff workstations and limits the number of parallel walls, reducing reverberation and maximizing usable area. The hexagon also facilitates the introduction of daylight into the living space.
  • From a practical point of view, we know that a space of 5 feet by 7 feet per person is not comparable to a residence. For this reason, we recommend a minimum of 50 unencumbered square feet per person, excluding washrooms/showers, to provide a warmer setting and avoid overcrowding.
  • Natural light should be supplemented with energy-efficient LED lighting that includes circadian technology. Cool blue tones during the day promote alertness and concentration before transitioning to warmer tones at night, which promote melatonin production and, therefore, better quality sleep.

Brighter, warmer interiors

  • Many elements incorporated into the housing unit can be used throughout the facility to create a more cohesive therapeutic environment. Interiors should feature natural materials and soothing pastel color palettes. Rooms can be brightened not only by the intentional placement of windows complemented by circadian lighting, but also by pops of color on accent walls and furniture.
  • With the walls, it is best to offer a combination of treatments to establish a more residential feel. Possibilities include burnished concrete blocks in natural colors, pastel paintings in soothing greens and blues, and murals depicting scenes from the natural world. Additional artwork, including pieces with inspirational messages, can help manage behaviors, reduce stress and anxiety, and boost self-esteem.
  • Depending on safety requirements, there are a number of flooring options to consider. For high security environments, terrazzo floors are a premium surface that is equally durable and strong, with the ability to incorporate colors or patterns. More traditional surfaces would include large scale vinyl tiles that come in a variety of styles. Some carpeted areas are also recommended to help with acoustics and provide definition in large spaces.
  • For ceilings, the main rule is to use any material except concrete. The standard retention ceiling consisting of suspended acoustic tiles with retainer clips and abuse-resistant plasterboard works well.

Infectious disease control

  • Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been heightened awareness of indoor air quality in correctional facilities due to several large outbreaks. Proper ventilation, airflow management and air purification throughout the building help create a healthier environment.
  • Concepts that should be applied include increasing outdoor air circulation in indoor areas and providing localized exhaust systems for better airflow ventilation in high-risk areas.

Reinventing a post-prison future will not be easy – many changes are needed. However, the shift from a prison model of punishment to a therapeutic model focused on rehabilitation can be accomplished through several of these new approaches to architectural design.

Henry Pittner, AIA, Partner, Head of Justice Practice, BKV Group, is an award-winning chartered architect, author and presenter who has gained national recognition for his leadership in project management, programming, planning and design governmental. With over 39 years of experience, he has led over 70 projects in 12 states for city, county and state clients, including courts, detention centers, law enforcement centers and government centers.

Abdul J. Gaspar