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First Impressions: Designing for Impact within the Correctional Setting

"First Impressions" is a term we typically associate with the design of single point of entry through beautiful lobbies in impressive buildings such as federal buildings. Rarely do we talk about “first impressions” in jails and correctional facilities but we believe it will have just as, if not a more important, impact on all of the users.  There are three key points of entry depending on who is entering:

  1. Staff Entrance – the point of entry for the officers, health care workers and staff who work at the jail.
  2. Intake – the point of entry for anyone brought by law enforcement to the facility pre or post adjudication.
  3. Visitation – the point of entry for family members, attorneys and volunteers visiting someone in the facility.

All three of these points of entry deserve careful design attention because the experience of arrival can have an impactful effect on behaviors far beyond of the impact of that moment in time. Designing all of the places of arrival — the “first impressions” — to convey respect for all of the individuals (detainees, staff, law enforcement officers, and visitors) is an important part of changing the face of our justice system.

Staff Entrance

As we work with our justice clients on improving outcomes in the Law Enforcement system, emphasis is often placed on the experience of the detained and/or incarcerated. While that is clearly essential, from a design perspective in many ways it is equally if not more important to consider improving the experience of the staff.  These officers and healthcare providers spend entire stress-filled careers within our jails and correctional facilities and deserve the best possible workplace environments.

While touring a newer jail, a corrections officer told me that “In the old jail, we entered through a service corridor literally next to the trash collections area. Here I enter through a garden and every day it makes me feel valued.” While I would never claim that design can overcome the pressures of shift work, real threats of violence, and a sense of isolation from much of society, good design should be able to deliver both great sightlines, best security practices, stress reducing places of respite and the message that officers and staff are valued. As nearly all of our justice clients struggle with recruiting and retaining staff and officers — designing a beautiful, calming and respectful staff entrance can help booster moral daily.

Intake

As the point of arrival for anyone being brought by law enforcement to a correctional facility, intake is a place of critical decision-making. There is no more important decision in our democracy than the decision to take away someone’s liberty — even temporarily prior to diversion or adjudication. Imagine the stress level for the detainee. Is there a last minute opportunity for diversion based on a mental health evaluation by psychologists at intake? Or perhaps there is an opportunity for expanded pretrial services that could conclude that their misdemeanor offense qualifies for diversion to a reporting center, or referral for services including mental health case management. Or, after appropriate evaluation, are they in fact headed to jail.  

While the implementation of these justice programs are outside of the realm of architecture, the design of intake can enhance the experience for both the detainees as they enter the system and improve the performance of the staff responsible for processing them. Daylight and views to nature reduce stress for everyone. Making clear to detainees that if they behave well they will be allowed to sit in a well supervised open waiting area with normative seating, calming colors, biophillic design, daylight and views to an internal landscaped courtyard is far more likely to encourage appropriate behavior than immediate assignment to the jail cell that can now be reserved for those who cannot control their behavior and represent a threat to themselves and others. As discussed above, all of these design elements are equally if not more important for the staff who will spend far more time in intake than any detainee.

Visitation

Many studies have shown that incarceration of an individual has significant impacts on their families and their communities — impacting everything from their mental and physical health to their economic stability. Perhaps the most tragically impacted are the children of incarcerated parents. All too often the process of walking up to an austere, even threatening visitation center, going through security and entering a room with prison-grade fixed cold furnishings makes everyone young and old feel like they themselves are incarcerated. Improving the experience of visiting incarcerated family members starts with the decision to situate the jail in a location served by public transportation. Connected to the overall arrival experience, a landscaped parking lot leading to a visible front door that is far from threatening and much more welcoming similar to a community center entrance.

Inside security should be integrated into the design just as it would be in a courthouse, as an important protective but not unnecessarily punitive process. Within the visitation rooms wouldn’t it be wonderful if the design was a normative, calming and welcoming as possible with places for children to play with their parents to promote bonding. Daylight and views to nature are essential but it would be even better if there was a way to design safe outdoor courtyards with appropriate supervision that was achievable without unduly increasing staffing requirements. Some may be concerned that this is coddling incarcerated people who deserve to be “punished” but they forget that the vast majority of these people will be returning to their communities.

Transforming the “first impression” of arrival at visitation can also have a benefit in reducing the stress of leaving behind a parent or a loved one. Imagine the benefit to a child walking through a calming landscape, looking back on a place that holds their mother or father that looks far less scary than the stereotyped detention and correctional facilities portrayed on television. I believe that good design can help reduce the ripple effects of detention and incarceration on all of those who use these facilities — the staff and officers who work there, those who are held there and their families and communities. It is a good investment in the long-term health of our communities.

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Intake area at Franklin County Corrections Center featuring biophilic design elements.