Planning & Design of Correctional Facilities: An Overview

Over the last several years, the planning and design profession has gained significant knowledge of what constitutes a normalized and therapeutic environment. When considering architectural design that calms and provides wellness this may seem more applicable for healthcare needs, but professionals working in Corrections such as facility managers, healthcare workers, architects and designers (A+D) also recognize this need.

As medical experts peer further into Correction populations, it is becoming clear that large percentages struggle with mental and addiction disorders. In addition, populations are increasing in quantity and in age. Since many under incarceration will return to our communities, concerns grow that the more often we elect to “warehouse” rather than humanize and rehabilitate, the greater the adverse impact this segment of the population will continue to have on public health and welfare.

Therefore, architects and consultants are working hard in this area to reinvent the fortress and meet changing needs, while preserving the non-negotiable issues of security and economics. Ensuring the public is protected from criminal behavior is without debate the foremost goal. However, the biggest question still stands: how can society balance the conflicting needs for security and the need to rehabilitate, but still protect the public and minimize criminal behavior?

In these next two blogs, we will cover these questions and discuss the current and future state of the correctional environment in terms of planning and design.

Reasons for Rethinking The Design of Correctional Facilities

At the dawn of the 21st century, Correction demographics report populations are aging, have more physical and mental disabilities, and include more women and juveniles. These statistics indicate the industry must address more complex issues than mere warehousing and overcrowding. This has inspired many planners and architects to rethink how we design and manage Correctional facilities. Questions are being raised, is there a way to modify plans to reduce population sizes and expand programs while protecting needed security? Are there methods and new technologies that assist in security, relieve Correctional officers, and allow their resources to be placed back into productive management? Is there a way to plan and design that helps to humanize the inmate, reducing their anxieties, and increasing safety for all?

Correctional Facility Design

Learn about how jails are picking up the slack of mental health clinics by visiting the Norix Blog Post on “Jails Pick Up The Slack”

According to Leonard Witke, who spent 20 years as director of facilities management and staff architect for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, “The essence of any prison today is the housing unit.” Witke says that with the dawn of direct supervision and the expectation that inmates spend more time in controlled environments, housing and program areas need to be physically linked, making activities from dining to dayroom use more manageable.

The first change with this was seen in 1983 as federal prisons switched from linear facility designs to triangles and squares. It had an immediate impact. “These new shapes created a day space in the middle that gives designers more to work with, an open space that lets the staff perceive issues before they become problems,” states Stephen Carter, a consultant in justice planning with Carter Goble Associates and who helped develop the first set of building and space standards established by the American Correctional Association (ACA). With demonstrated positive results, inmates are being housed in groups of limited size, 100 – 200, in lieu of the previous 500 – 1000, in part as a way to more easily contain aggressive behavior but also to support expanded programming. Witke says the smaller, campus-like configuration offers the ideal framework for classifying and segregating inmates with special needs. “I see us being able to create safe areas for geriatric inmates, for instance, so they don’t have to confront young, active inmates.” Similarly, female inmates often have a greater need for privacy and family contact, and juveniles require more order and direction in their lives. Both benefit from the “facility-within-a-facility environment.”

Aging Inmate Population

Learn more about the aging inmate population and how it affects the corrections industry by visiting the Norix Blog post “Old Behind Bars.”

Yet, the flip side to the smaller “pod” design and the shift to helping prisoners modify their behavior essentially creates more contact between them and correctional officers, and can stretch resources to the limit. According to Witke,  this has provided opportunities to A+D to think the possible and bring forth vision.

The challenge becomes that of parallel concerns: how to change the way people act, control inmate disruptions, and protect vulnerable individuals. According to the leading experts in the field, the best Correctional facilities recognize the challenge of creating spaces that do not confine the spirit or crush self-esteem, while also sending an unmistakable message of order.

However, planning and design within Correctional facilities, more than any other building type, demands a deep understanding of a layering of issues – all of which can be life-enhancing and life-threatening. Again, depending on whether the facility is of minimum, medium or maximum security plays a distinctive role in the decisions relating to planning, design, and the human element.

Correctional Facility DesignTherefore, the following is a list of key variables to consider:

  • Facility Mission and Operational Philosophy
  • Inmate and Staff Safety
  • Degree of Necessary Surveillance
  • Ability to Serve At-risk Populations
  • Level of Staff Skills and Training
  • Staff Retention
  • Type and Quality of Support Facilities
  • Proximity to Outside Services
  • Community Concerns and Involvement
  • Presence of Alternatives to Incarceration

With these issues in mind, the question becomes how planners and designers address these needs and preserve the non-negotiable factor of security yet create outward tools that provide a normalized environment.

We encourage you to give us your thoughts on the above and to raise questions on these issues and propose alternatives. Be sure to share this post with others who are interested in correctional facility planning and design.