Blending trauma-informed and salutogenic principles in the design of modern correctional facilities

Article

Marayca López i Ferrer & Helena Pombares

Louis Sullivan’s famous maxim “form follows function”, articulates the concept that “the shape of a building or object should directly relate to its intended function or purpose”.

The form-follows-function emphasis in prison design becomes obvious as one begins to examine the changing function and purpose that carceral settings have been asked to serve throughout history. 

In the 20th century, the “rehabilitation” of justice-involved people was the turning point in the evolution of the treatment and prison architecture fields. This approach was characterized by a “softening” in the look and feel – façades and plans, and the use of colors and home like materials to create a more rehabilitative and stimulating prison environment as well as promoting health and wellbeing for the users (Wener, 2012).

A Century later, contemporary studies and empirical work have exposed the high prevalence of trauma among incarcerated people resulting from years of chronic exposure to stressful live events and adversarial childhood experiences such as homelessness, poverty, violence, abandonment and neglect, emotional and physical abuse, loss of family members to death or imprisonment, alcohol and drug use disorders in the household, intimate partner violence, broken families, etc. Experiences of trauma are nearly universal among the prison population, but particularly among the youth and female population. Beyond trauma exposure, justice-involved people present additional high rates of physical and mental ill-health, brain injuries, intellectual disability, and co-occurring disorders.

We also know that the effects of trauma do not end with arrest. Traumatic experiences tend to persist during incarceration, with policies to maintain security and control, harsh regimes, and deprivation practices further contributing to re-traumatization. 

The built environment itself can also be the source of additional trauma. The following architecture of the space and physical design features of correctional settings are considered sources of trauma and counterproductive to producing positive outcomes on people’s health and wellbeing: 

• disconnection from family;

• large scale institutions;

• high density and overcrowded units;

• large open-bay dormitory housing;

• lack of privacy and personal space;

• clanging metal doors and loud noises;

• poor lighting (particularly insufficient darkness for sleeping); 

• use of grey and dark colors with little to no ornamentation;

• bad temperature;

• poor ventilation, indoor air quality, lack of access to fresh air;

• paucity of natural light and lack of apertures to the outside (windows);

• low ceilings, narrow corridors, convoluted circulation;

• cement and modular furniture bolted to the floor, concrete slab beds;

• blind spots, poor wayfinding, unpredictability of surroundings 

(resulting in perceived threats to safety);

• limited movement outside of the sleeping areas;

• loss of autonomy;

• poor space allocation for programs and purposeful activity.

Combining the principles of biophilic and salutogenic design
With trauma-informed care being the most recent approach in the treatment of people deprived of liberty, correctional facilities are now called to serve trauma-recovery goals. Research is clear that when designing spaces where the occupants have experienced long and complex histories of traumatic stress (resulting in mental and physical challenges), trauma-recovery objectives are better accomplished in settings where effective health improvement can occur.
 
Salutogenic and biophilic design approaches are critical to creating the spaces and environment that can influence wellbeing and help people thrive mentally and physically. 
 
Biophilic design is all about engaging with nature and natural elements to help with health and wellness. There is a large body of biophilia research which demonstrates that physical and psychological wellbeing is supported by environmental conditions like those found in nature. Not just through the introduction of plants and green spaces, views of nature or, in its absence, imagery of natural elements, but also ideas like water features, access to daylight and fresh air.
 
Salutogenesis goes beyond mere physical considerations like natural light, fresh air and thermal comfort, taking the wellness concept even further. Salutogenic design is all about involving all senses of the human body and promoting good health and wellbeing. Salutogenesis addresses “the sense of coherence” which is the individual attitude towards others and the environment, which in turn is determined by individual circumstances. It focusses on how the built environment can help improve health and productivity, which explains why a salutogenic approach is highly welcomed in trauma recovery spaces like custodial design.
 
The design of spaces should not exacerbate the situation, provoke harm, or prolong it. Hence, the core aspects of salutogenic architecture: the sense of coherence (SoC) of the space must be addressed, which is the way the user comprehends the space (not confusing) and manages it (easy to navigate). This, in turn, makes the space meaningful to the person who will consequently be able to manage stress which can cause and exacerbate trauma. 
Completed in 2017, the Skagit County Community Justice Center (Washington, USA), uses a palette of warm materials and engaging colours based on the surrounding scenery of the Pacific Northwest.
Operationalizing biophilic and salutogenic design into the correctional setting
There is no doubt that the physical environment affects building users. Nowhere else is this better captured than in Winston Churchill quote we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us”. It is therefore the responsibility of the architect to create carceral spaces that are safe and health promoting.
 
Post-traumatic healing and post-traumatic growth is possible. To deal with these changing demands in purpose, in trauma-responsive carceral settings it is crucial to have a psychosocially supportive environment to stimulate the mind, reduce anxiety, and promote positive psychological emotions. 
 
Ideally, a trauma-informed approach to prison architecture should begin from scratch and involve the planning and design process, the surrounding environment, the materials to be used in the construction of the space, the shape of the buildings, the colors and textures used, and every other built detail. But even when building a new facility is not an option, a great deal can be done to make existing spaces less trauma-inducing.
 
Below is a discussion of physical design and environmental features that foster salutogenesis, after observing the effectiveness of the salutogenic approach in schools, workplaces, and hospitals. These features are believed to be part of humans’ physiological and psychological needs.
 
San Diego County Youth Transition Campus (California, USA) was designed with a trauma-informed, therapeutic approach to youth detention. Following a holistic notion of connectivity, the housing distribution as a circle and multiple circulation paths support daily movement throughout the campus.
1. Community connections 
Arguably prisons can only successfully rehabilitate wrongdoers if a strong positive link is created with local communities. The benefits of increased community connections are many.
 
It is well documented that, quite too often, people who have been convicted suffer negative psychological consequences from disconnection from family and society, with time in prison negatively impacting the feeling of “belonging” to society. Therefore, the first step on the path to recovery requires (re)building the lost feeling of belonging. By being close to the community, community partners can help to restore connections, bringing in teachers, volunteers, and counselors to participate in leisure activities while leveraging the provision of aftercare programs and services that can help reduce boredom and institutionalization. These collaborations give incarcerated people a feeling of compassion and community support, helping advance wellness and recovery. 
 
For visitors and community members to be engaged, they must feel welcomed in a friendly rather than authoritarian manner. Key to this principle is the creation of spaces that are inviting and pleasant. From the public entry, introducing landscaping and vegetation, eliminating blockades like barbed fences, gateways, brick walls, and other hard surfaces and substituting these with soft features and less austere materials set the tone for what to expect, while helping to create a more “aesthetic integration” in the community. A welcoming and attractive environment helps not only on a physiological level, but conveys a clear message that those who work in and use the building are valued and respected.
 
A better, more normalized and uplifting experience for visitors is also achieved by enriching the environment with aesthetic considerations as well as providing inviting and user-friendly spaces for visitors (visitors lounge, children’s play area, family rooms, community rooms, comfort rooms, etc.). Incorporating access to attractive spaces for familial and social interactions allows positive experiences in that environment.
2. Building layout and predictability

For individuals that have suffered trauma, it is very important to create a sense of safety and calmness by providing spaces with unobstructed sightlines and clear visibility from space to space. 

Clarity, good visibility, free of barriers and easy to navigate buildings not only help with visibility but can also increase a person’s sense of safety and put individuals at ease, encouraging more friendly interactions. 

Layouts that are square shaped, with sharp corners and dead ends can account for problematic blind spots. To eliminate these unsupervised corners, circular and curved shapes provide better visibility of individual rooms and improve those in common spaces. 

Trauma-experienced individuals appreciate visibility from space to space, as well as the ability to see who is coming and going (transparency), and to anticipate and see who is in a communal space before entering it (predictability). If the space is perceived as open and predictable, it will increase the sense of safety, which allows a level of trust in a social environment. This also helps decrease the perceived sense of crowding or being trapped. Using signage and landmarks enhances the legibility of the building layout and helps with wayfinding, which in turn creates a sense of familiarity and predictability.

At the San Diego County Youth Transition Campus, open views to the horizon are a key design feature, offering a connection to nature and promoting a sense of transparency and hope.
3. Personalization and choice
Sufficient personal space for comfort, privacy, and autonomy without compromising residents and staff safety, are features of personalization and freedom of choice. Autonomy-enhancing elements allow the incarcerated to rebuild self-worth and regain a sense of personal dignity. Things like allowing residents to access different activity zones, choose where to seat, with whom, and how to rearrange a chair or other small pieces of furniture create opportunities for agency and enhances the person’s sense of control and independence.
 
Within their living quarters, the provision of communal rooms/meeting places allows residents the opportunity to socialize and develop a sense of community by interacting with other residents, staff or even people from the community. These spaces should be designed to be neutral and supportive of an equitable use by all. Neutral spaces are those that do not have a prescribed function or purpose. Instead, they allow people the freedom to choose how they engage with the space, both emotionally and behaviorally. These can also be spaces where people are able to seek comfort and reflect on themselves and others (e.g. self-regulation rooms, sensory rooms, peace corners, nooks, etc.). Alcoves allow residents to retreat from larger group situations. Youth in particular, but also adults love window seats, alcoves and other peripheral spaces that allow them to create their own space while also being connected to the larger, communal space.
 
In order to achieve comfort and privacy, every incarcerated person should be afforded their own room (and ideally their own private bathroom) and be allowed to personalize the space. Giving choices about furniture arrangement, bedding, curtains, and artwork/ /pictures display helps people invest in their own space. Also, giving residents the ability to adjust the lighting, temperature and air circulation promotes a sense of self-sufficiency and control over their environment. When a building creates opportunities for ownership and agency people are encouraged to respect the space and take care of their property, resulting in less vandalism and abuse.
4. Freedom of movement within the facility

Traditional prisons severely limit the degree of movement and freedom that a person deprived of liberty can achieve within the facility. They are antithetical to building a sense of autonomy and self-efficacy.

To deemphasize the institutional aspects of incarcerated life, residents should be allowed to move beyond their housing units during the course of the day, for as much as it is possible. And this small freedom of movement throughout the facility should reflect our everyday movements through the home, school, workplace, and recreation activities. 
 
Architectonically, this requires creating a varied facility with various interconnected or separate buildings and “destination” spaces reachable by means of controlled circulation paths. As people walk to approved areas within the facility that stimulate indoor and outdoor use and physical activity, they are exposed to varying sensory experiences over time, which creates awareness of the passing of time and helps incarcerated people to maintain a calm state. 
 
Feature color walls, varied massing, variations in textures, floors patterns, some angles or curves, and the display of words of affirmation and encouragement in transitory locations and circulation areas provide visual interest while helping people with get oriented in large institutions and navigate the several building structures. 
 
At the San Diego County Youth Transition Campus, open views to the horizon are a key design feature, offering a connection to nature and promoting a sense of transparency and hope.
5. Spatial and environmental health-promoting features 
The following spatial and aesthetic features are known for contributing to good health and socio wellness while reducing the institutional feel:
 
• Provision of large or tall vertical windows (without bars) allow light into the space and communicate with the user about the external environment. It becomes an extension of the outside world, connecting the user to nature and serving as a stress reduction tool.
 
• Acoustically dampened environment, wall panels, acoustic tiled ceilings, and carpets and other acoustic treatment products are key to control of noise. This is particularly important in correctional settings, as exposure to unwanted sounds/noise causes a range of psychological and physical problems like hearing loss, headaches, nausea, irritability, aggressive behaviour, etc.
 
• Materials and soft textures – the use of carpet, soft floor finishes like cushioned vinyl, epoxy floor, polished concrete, as well as the introduction of textures on walls, wooden railing, wood door or detention grade but with wood-laminated finish have some great natural attributes, playing an essential role in fostering spaciousness and in conveying warmth instead of sterility.
 
• Light in some form, for example natural sunlight via window source (especially with a view), lights that mimic natural sunlight in a skylight (circadian light), or colored light, is a design element that can evoke transformational emotions and contribute to ineffable qualities of a space. More specifically, introducing and maximizing access to daylight dramatically impacts the quality of space, mood, and the warding off depression, uplifting the human spirit and increasing the perception of one’s safety.
 
• Colors – colors are known to have calming and stress-reducing effects and stimulate initiative and joy. Even if the selection of colors needs to be controlled for various reasons (i.e. gang affiliation), dull choices are not the only option. The use of soothing, lighter paint colors are perceived as more open, less crowded (“spatially available”), and thus safer and more calming. In the residents’ rooms, meeting and group rooms subdued, muted or warm colors help to promote well-being. In activity rooms and common rooms, more vibrant, energetic colors and decorative elements can be used. 
 
• Furniture – normalised furniture creates a home-feeling environment and engages the users mentally and socially. Mobile storage and lightweight but durable furniture, encourages and empowers residents and staff to reconfigure and transform the space to support specific needs. Using color-coded furniture to designate different areas can also be an effective wayfinding tool. Special attention needs to be paid to the arrangement of furniture for how it affects residents’ sense of safety, perceived crowdedness, and relationship to staff. Sitting face-to-face across a desk or table may be perceived as confrontational, whereas sitting corner to corner invites conversation and interaction. Furniture that has elements of softness, comfort, and “cocooning” can make users feel protected and safe.
 
Finally, we cannot but finish our contribution but acknowledging that the health and well-being of correctional facility employees are equally impacted by the built environment. People working in a correctional setting usually spend 8 to 12 hours of their day in a stressful environment which makes them quickly lose pieces of themselves and their well-being. As they spend much of their day indoors, they lack access to daylight and any contact or view of nature which may have psychological and physical consequences. Therefore, to prioritize staff well-being it is equally important that all work areas and employees’ support spaces are designed to be health-promoting and help increase the comfort levels, morale and performance levels. 
 

Marayca Lopez i Ferrer, PhD., devoted her entire career, both academic and professional, to the philosophy and practice of prison reform. She holds three advanced degrees in the field of Criminal Justice. She has been providing services as a justice planner since 2006, helping to plan and program juvenile and adult facilities that are holistic in their approach, safe, humane, and focused on innovative operational and programmatic initiatives for successful re-entry. Marayca has worked on justice reform projects and prison studies in the USA and abroad (e.g., Australia, Canada, Europe, Central and South America), resulting in a deep understanding of correctional best practices, operations, and prison management models worldwide.

Helena Pombares is an architect and urban planner, criminologist, researcher, and university lecturer, teaching for the criminology degrees (and pathways) in the UK. She also possesses a master’s degree in Prisons Architecture and is in the final stages of her Professional Doctorate degree at the University of West London (UWL), researching “Salutogenic Architecture – Reshaping Prison Design for the 21st Century”. Helena has more than 18 years of experience in justice architecture, and her research on the salutogenic architecture of carceral spaces fuels her passion for understanding the effects the built environment has on the users of the space (staff and inmates).

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