This post is about 900 words and can be read in about 4 minutes.

This post is taken directly from the summary of a recent report issued by the United Kingdom government.

The physical environment is a crucial component of a rehabilitative culture. It communicates to people:

  • how safe they are
  • whether they are seen as people who will be treated decently and given the headspace to change.

Violence and other anti-social behaviours are more frequent in dirty and dilapidated environments.

People flourish in environments that offer them hope, fresh air, views and greenery, and are clean and decent. This makes a difference both for staff and for the people in our care.

What does the evidence say about how the prison environment affects people?

… the quality of the prison environment has immediate and longer-term consequences for safety and wellbeing. Prison is a stressful place to live and work, but the environment can to add to this tension.

For prisoners, overcrowding, poor conditions, lack of access to nature, poor lighting, and noise can impact on:

  • disorder and violence
  • mental and physical health
  • potential future reoffending

Poor prison conditions are also associated with reduced staff wellbeing.

Architecture and design can influence the feel, purpose and functioning of a prison. Design can help or hinder social interaction among staff and prisoners. It can also influence prison behaviour. Research suggests prisons associated with better outcomes were:

  • smaller
  • newer
  • had single cells
  • were designed with an emphasis on building relationships and community

Overcrowding can negatively affect prisoner health and wellbeing. Research links overcrowding with:

  • disruptive behaviour,
  • prisoner mental health, and
  • sometimes prison suicide (although sharing a cell can be a protective factor for some people who want to share).

There is little evidence of a direct link between overcrowding and reoffending.

Poor or unpleasant prison conditions. These are things like insects, rodents, dirt, litter, clutter, fire risks, sanitation, privacy and noise. Also, keeping people in higher security conditions than necessary. These affect order within the prison, the mental and /or physical health of prisoners, and their future reoffending outcomes.

Light, noise and sensory stimulation. Evidence suggests that improving sleep quality by improving light quality, and reducing noise may improve prisoner behaviour. Light in the daytime increases alertness and energy levels. But at night time light can make it more difficult fall asleep and stay asleep. Persistent night-time noise and door banging from disruptive prisoners reduce sleep quality. Access to views or to natural settings is likely to enhance wellbeing.

Physical environment features which support rehabilitation

Reducing overcrowding, improving cleanliness, lighting, interiors, and views of nature, may improve outcomes. Keeping people at the lowest possible security level may also help. Creating prison environments, as similar as possible to normal life outside, is likely to be beneficial. Some features are beyond the control of individual prisons. Design, some aspects of layout, size or age, cannot be changed. But there are aspects of the physical prison environment that we can improve:

  • layout, which promotes community and relationships
  • creating smaller communities within prisons, where possible
  • where possible, using single cells over double cells
  • reducing levels of overcrowding
  • keeping people at the lowest possible security prison
  • ensuring prisons are clean, and free of clutter, litter, insects and rodents
  • ensuring adequate lighting (good dark at night and use of natural light-filled spaces in the day)
  • monitoring and reducing noise levels, particularly at night to aid sleep
  • ensuring access to natural views from cells where possible
  • ensuring opportunities for recreation and personal space

The ‘Scandinavian normalisation’ model suggests that prisons that reflect ‘normal’ life wherever possible can positively affect prisoners’ behaviour and outcomes. Health research also suggests physical environment factors can help patient wellbeing and healing. More research is needed. This suggests evidence-informed ways the physical prison environment can support rehabilitation and potentially improve morale and productivity:

  • designing passive and active spaces: passive spaces where prisoners and staff can be contemplative, reflective and quiet; and active spaces that allow prisoners to keep fit and have time in the fresh air
  • large communal areas, where prisoners can socialise, maximising opportunities for social interaction
  • creating interesting and varied interiors with differing views and communal spaces
  • having inspirational quotes on walls
  • removing negative messages or posters and replacing them with positive rehabilitative ones
  • using strong visual images, posters, messages and careful language to support the rehabilitative purpose of the prison
  • using artwork to provide convincing artificial views
  • creating large murals, for example whole walls
  • using a variety of colour schemes
  • colour-coding house blocks or wings to help orientation

Blog editor’s comment:

Canadian jails and prisons are very far from meeting these conditions. Indeed, in most cases they are the opposite. For example, new jails in Ontario provide no access at all to ‘natural views’, since all natural light comes through glass blocks. Many federal prisons are very old and in poor physical condition. Instead of having artwork, walls are deliberately kept blank. And so on. These practices are driven partly by the never-ending worry about security and partly to meet what are assumed to be public expectations that prisoners should suffer while incarcerated. The long-term result, however, is worse outcomes, less public safety and greater cost.