Parkin Blog

Designing for Mental Health in Detention Centres

Modern design principles for detention centres are moving away from purely punitive functions toward a more rehabilitative model. In the past, prison design was meant to render prisoners docile to the point of potentially causing mental harm. Incarceration was understood as a punishment where confinement and isolation were seen as ends in themselves. Neither workers’ nor prisoners’ mental well-being was taken into consideration for facility design.

Today, there is a better understanding that a correctional facility is no longer the “end of the line”, but rather part of a justice continuum. In addition to dealing with the needs of the incarcerated and the staff, correctional facilities need to address the needs of the judiciary, law enforcement and social agencies, health agencies, and families. Given the strong focus on evidence-based design and research, the form and function of these facilities are being transformed to meet the needs of the facility users.

Many experts today are rethinking the function of carceral facilities within society and what role those facilities play within communities. The trend towards normalization is based on the belief that prisons should reflect the best of society’s values, which includes allowing prisoners some autonomy, like being able to control the temperature in their cells. From First Nations healing lodges in North America to prisons in northern Europe, prison design is now working to keep prisons more humane by including colour, natural light and welcoming normalized spaces, with the aim of reducing stress and anxiety levels for prisoners and workers.

Up to 50% of a prison population may be suffering with a psychological mental health issue, so excessive isolation and oppressive institutional design can cause harm rather than providing an opportunity for healing. Parkin designers are at the forefront of creating holistic detention facilities that aim to blur the line between corrections and healing facilities. The firm’s contributions to master planning and programming for facilities across the country in support of multiple security levels have been instrumental in guiding the evolution of changing provincial policy for detention centres.

To achieve this holistic approach, Parkin designers work with multi-disciplinary teams that develop collaborative initiatives founded on agreed principles, goals, methodologies, risks and reward protocols. These principles need to meet a number of complex criteria, including dealing with wear and tear on furnishings, space planning, and prison population movement throughout the facility. The aim is no longer to dehumanize inmates, but to create a functional balance between creating open spaces, while still maintaining secure, impenetrable facilities that keep both the community and prisoners safe. The challenge is to find a balance between the necessary closedness of a corrections institution while still offering some sense of autonomy for prisoners. This also serves as “normalization therapy” that ensures prisoners or patients eventually can be better assimilated into the real world.

Setting the functional tone of a facility becomes key for designers, starting with how spaces are planned, used and meant to operate. Materials used in prison design have tended to be hard surfaces like concrete, stainless steel with low ceilings and mostly artificial lighting. While maximum security grade construction may have its place within a jail, designers today are working toward creating a more normalized space by incorporating vibrant but abuse-resistant materials, natural light, exterior views and colour that make spaces less oppressive and more comfortable. Offered normalized furnishings and atmospheres, prisoners may be less inclined to abuse furnishings and spaces.

Interior design is a key component for creating welcoming and rehabilitative spaces, and no other medium is as influential on our bodies and minds as light and exterior views. Studies have shown that natural light and view deprivation can play a detrimental role in health and well-being, so it is obvious that any type of healing facilities should allow for as much natural light to permeate their spaces as possible.

Colour also plays an integral role in creating healing spaces. While the effects of colour may be culturally informed—and so cannot be dictated for specific use—evidence-based design principles offer guideline specifications for colours and colour theory that help avoid an institutional atmosphere. Colour theory guidelines can be implemented to create more vibrant, welcoming spaces and may have positive physiological and psychological effects for prisoners, workers and visitors.

Each space within a detention facility may serve a different function and offer a diverse emotional atmosphere, but an effective design can also make the entire facility feel cohesive while supporting the purposes of individual spaces, support programs, therapy rooms, cells, and outdoor yards. If a facility is conceived of as a transitional and therapeutic space rather than mere punishment, a connection to a natural outdoor space can have an impact on how prisoners will transition to the outside world they will eventually rejoin. By providing all facility users, whether workers, visitors or inmates, with a connection to the outside environment, either through large windows or spaces that can be flooded with natural lighting, the feeling of a space can change dramatically for the positive for all users.