Parkin Blog

Trends in Correctional Facility Design

Robert Boraks is a Director at Parkin Architects Limited, Visiting Scholar at the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University, and a frequent guest speaker at international conferences where he shares his understanding of trends that will help shape correctional facility design here in Canada and around the world.

What does it mean to be incarcerated in Canada?

To be incarcerated means the justice system has deemed an individual is to be separated from society due to the fact he or she is a threat to the community. These individuals no longer have the freedom to move about in the community as they wish, and most often individual choices such as meal selection, waking hours, and basic needs such as turning on a light have been removed and have been assumed by society. As an extension of this control, it also means that the community has assumed the responsibility for the health, safety and care for these individuals until such time as they are released. This is a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly.

In Canada, all incarcerated individuals enter into the provincial detention system until they have been sentenced or released. These individuals are presently classified as being on remand and are typically treated as maximum security threats. If the individuals are sentenced to less than 2 years of incarceration, they remain in the provincial system. Should they be sentenced to more than 2 years, they enter the federal system. The percentage of remanded individuals who are sentenced to the federal system, and who are subsequently classified as being a maximum-security threat, is less than 1% of the remanded population. The average inmate length of stay (ALOS) in provincial systems is short. In Ontario, ALOS, including sentenced individuals, is 31 days.

Rankin Inlet Healing Centre (Parkin Architects Limited)
Ministry of Justice, Government of Nunavut
Photo Credit: Jerry Kopelow

Emerging Trends in Correctional Facility Design

The trend towards normalization is based on the belief that prisons should reflect the best of society’s values. There is no reason to diminish dignity for both inmates and officers when the right of movement is removed. Operating within a range of security levels, the trend is moving towards a classification system that allows inmates to be housed in the least restrictive environment possible based on an individual’s comportment and documented security threat level. It should be noted that normalization has been proven to be more effective, less expensive, and is supported by the majority of prison officers.

Based on classification levels, normalization allows inmates to be treated with the same dignity and respect afforded to any other person. It encourages inmates to remain active members of society even within prison and permits them to work, study and even vote, while incarcerated. Unlike some countries, where convicted felons are denied the right to vote, the Canadian government actually brings voting booths into correctional facilities, respecting the right of all individuals to participate in the democratic process.

To some extent, normalization is already in place at the federal level in Canada. Corrections Services Canada provides up to seven graduated levels of security environments. Incarcerated individuals are placed in the least restrictive environment based on an individual’s comportment and classification. While strict maximum-security levels do exist, the lowest levels of security afford inmates a significant level of autonomy and dignity. In these situations, housing is similar to what one would expect at a college dormitory. Similar graduated security environments are being introduced into provincial remand facilities. Parkin’s contributions to master planning and programming for facilities across the country in support of multiple security levels have been fundamental in affecting the evolution of changing provincial policy, as is evidenced by the recently enacted Bill 6 in Ontario.

The second emerging trend is the heightened use of technology that goes hand in hand with the trend of normalization. Historically, prisons have been more electronically integrated than even hospitals and the trend to leverage technology continues to move quickly. Today this includes contraband control (anything prohibited from cellphones, to drugs, to weapons), movement within the facility, visitation, and parole hearings, as well as access to family and friends: a crucial component of normalizing the inmate experience.

Closely associated with normalization and technology, is the empowerment of inmates by selectively giving greater control to day-to-day activities. Allowing inmates to control lighting and temperature while giving the officers the ability to override building systems as required, provides inmates with a greater degree of self-reliance and dignity, a decrease in stress levels, and a heightened sense of security for both inmates and officers.

Community Involvement
There is growing awareness that prisons should not be the end of the road but rather part of the solution. Prisons are an integral part of the community that provides a service–just as libraries and hospitals provide services. While inmates are not allowed to leave the premises, that should not mean the community cannot enter the facility. To that point, prisons are being designed to not only incarcerate individuals but more importantly, to welcome the community into the prison as part of the rehabilitative process.

As part of normalization, prison social and health services will be increasingly provided by the community. Given that correctional officers are not trained to be psychologists, dentists or teachers, prisons will be increasingly designed as extensions of the community, with service amenities and security being effectively combined.

This is an important trend, not only for the incarcerated individuals but for the community which will be accepting many of these individuals back into their midst.

Adult Detention Centre Analysis (Parkin Architects Limited)
Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services

What will future prisons look like?

In the future, it will be difficult to distinguish the “look” of a hospital or school from that of a prison. Bedrooms will all be single-occupancy with ensuite bathrooms, tiered units will disappear, inmates will have the opportunity to have limited control of access and entry to their rooms, and services will be decentralized to the maximum extent possible. Natural views and light will be featured prominently in the design. Prisons will become places of refuge for the incarcerated. Of equal importance, prisons will become attractive and dignified work environments for the staff.