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Correctional Facility Design for Staff Well-Being

Correctional facility design is undergoing a transformation as both correctional experts and designers recognize that spatial design, colour, good acoustics, natural light and views can have a healing effect for prisoners. Up to 50% of prisoners may enter the carceral system suffering with mental or psychological challenges; it’s now accepted that design can play a positive therapeutic role when implemented effectively.

Interestingly, prisoners spend a relatively short period of time in a correctional facility before they rejoin the community. Indeed, correctional staff spend more actual time “in jail” than the prisoners themselves. These workers are tasked with caretaking 24/7, working with vulnerable and sometimes violent people. As a workforce they suffer high levels of absenteeism due to work-related injuries and stress, and workers have a high rate of burnout. They are also less healthy than the general workforce, suffering from weight-related problems, including high cholesterol and triglycerides, which means that workers are more likely to have a heart attack than workers in other fields. They are also likely to engage in unhealthy alcohol use and are more likely to die by suicide than the general population.

This level of stress and burnout for detention centre staff is top of mind for facility management, so there is growing recognition that design that takes staff well-being into consideration can help address some of these issues. Staff members are usually involved in Parkin user group meetings and the design process in order to address their specific needs and concerns, as well as the functional requirements of their job. Based on our research and user group involvement, we try to address design elements to reduce employee stresses and implement other functional elements to assist them in their daily duties and functions.

Working from an evidence-based understanding that most incarcerated individuals respond better to normalized, safe environments rather than dehumanizing harsh ones, contemporary design can allow a significant decrease in the “hardness” of a facility. Creating more pleasant environments greatly improves working conditions for the officers and other staff as well. Comfortable, vibrant and abuse resistant materials can be integrated into the design rather than the hard and cold materials such as concrete and steel that have been traditionally used. This can be manifested through greater use of gypsum board walls and wooden cell doors, making the facility less “institutional” feeling, which helps mitigate some of the physical stress with which staff contend daily.

Hard materials also create an alienating and oppressive soundscape. Including more natural materials for surfaces and softer furnishings than tend to be used in typical institutional design creates an appealing atmosphere while dampening excessive noise bounce, which can greatly reduce stress and tension for workers. Other contributing factors that lead to a more normalized environment include: large, operable windows; good views to the exterior; and low noise levels. Plenty of natural light and good atmospheric lighting are among the most important design elements that can transform a facility into a healthy workspace.

Normalization has become a key component in corrections facility design with the aim of making spaces less oppressive and more pleasing for users. This is particularly crucial for addressing some of the issues faced by correctional staff. Improvements can include creating open workspaces where staff can communicate with their teams and security, while still ensuring their physical safety, as well as keeping any information stored within the building secure. Special security requirements around entries, exits and windows also need to be taken into consideration.

Importantly, prison design is now moving away from the panopticon model toward what’s known as ‘Direct supervision.’ This is a method of control where correctional officers are resident in the dayroom with inmates. Traditional prison design implements a security barrier that separates the corrections officers from prisoners. Direct supervision allows officers to take better control of the unit, resulting in lower stress levels for inmates and officers, as well as fewer assaults.

Parkin designers approach correctional facility design with the philosophy that prisons are an integral part of the community. They provide services in much the same way that libraries and hospitals do. That means that there are multiple stakeholders, including prison staff, whose needs must be taken into consideration at multiple design levels. The end goal is to mitigate negative attitudes toward detention facilities in order help reintegrate individuals into the community, while providing workers with a less alienating work atmosphere.

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