Jeff Goodale, AIA

There is a mindset shift taking place in the world of correctional design. How can the design of a jail focus on rehabilitation and help inmates to address and recover from the trauma in their lives?

Every single person in custody can point to a past abuse and neglect in their lives that informed their behavior and contributed to their current state. Unfortunately, traditional local correctional facilities—with slamming doors, austere conditions, and general physical discomfort—can increase this trauma.

Many in the industry are now beginning to transition from the traditional model of how such a facility should look to a new approach that uses design elements to promote recovery and reduce recidivism. This is a significant mindset shift for some industry leaders.

Personal Control One of the goals of trauma-informed design is to provide people with an experience of autonomy and control over their lives and schedules. Even if they don’t have unfettered access to the facility, they have some freedom of movement. They have a personal space inside their cell as well as shared indoor and outdoor places to interact with others. Socialization is important and so is access to the staff and management.

While safety is always a concern for employees in a jail or local correctional facility, the human factor is vitally important for the inmates. Placing the person who is in control behind glass can be perceived as cold and distant. Instead, newer designs focus on spaces that feel more normalized and less institutional, even in small ways. Design features as simple as wood doors (where possible, of course) can make the environment feel more comfortable.

Security concerns for staff and inmates alike are always the driving force behind many of the design decisions. Therefore, design teams must be creative to work in some of the human elements while still ensuring everyone’s safety as well as honoring budgets that are often understandably constrained.

Shifting Priorities In one example project in the northeastern region of the U.S., project leaders were creating a master plan and debating if they needed to include air conditioning in the facility. Many of the members in the facility’s community could not afford air conditioning, and there was a perception that it might be considered as “too nice” for those who are being incarcerated.

The response from proponents of trauma-informed design is that it’s difficult for people to recover and make progress when they are physically uncomfortable, unsafe, isolated, and with no access to treatment. Extreme hot and cold temperatures can cause stress not only in inmates, but also in staff. In particular, inmates can become angry, more resentful, contemptuous, and suspicious. In addition, it exacerbates any existing mental illness.

When these basic human conditions are not prioritized, good outcomes for inmates are decreased. Proponents of trauma-informed design focus on the goal that inmates who are in the system should come out better than when they were incarcerated. Ideally, they need a physical environment where they can develop new job skills and coping mechanisms, stabilize mental illness, and get addiction under control.

Trauma-informed design reduces recidivism by meeting the needs of inmates, providing access to self-improvement, and reducing the negative influences that inmates may have on one another. Jails need to be a place for a pause and an opportunity for inmates to pursue redemption and experience personal transformation. To do that, an environment needs to be balanced and helpful.

Visitors and Staff Trauma-informed design does not only apply to the residents of these facilities but encompasses all stakeholders, including visitors and staff. Everyone benefits from a safe and calm environment. The introduction of daylight, meaningful views, designated break areas, places to connect with each other and with the outside world—all have shown to improve staff morale and performance. In addition, turnover reduces significantly in newer, more normalized settings.

Key considerations for staff include a connection to outdoors—a connection to see outside to the environment, as well as to be able to call family and reach out to others. The idea is to provide staff with the ability to take a quality mental break—not just a physical break—from any stress directly associated with their work.

Also important to staff is the availability of a safe and separate parking area where others cannot be informed of when they are arriving and leaving the facility. Collectively, all of these measures combine to make staff feel safe while performing their job.

Solutions and Insights An example facility in the south central part of the U.S. functions as a voluntary outpatient unit. It offers an alternative to jail for eligible people. Once participants are in the program, they have the opportunity for counseling, education, and social programs, as well as access to outdoor space.

The environment is more normalized with skylights, conventional furniture, and communal spaces. There are no high-security doors or other jail-like features. Facilities like these serve as a model to other programs that are interested in implementing a trauma-informed design.

Leaders who wish to follow this example can invest in design decisions that normalize the space—when appropriate—to include such design features as large windows that bring in ample daylight to create a strong connection to the outdoors and furniture that appears “normal” rather than institutional. Learning how other facilities function successfully can provide proof to traditionalists who are genuinely debating about shifting to a trauma-informed design.

Concluding Thoughts How can we design our facilities for the rehabilitation and healing of its occupants? There is a healing aspect that needs to be considered. Certainly people who are incarcerated are also victims in different ways—of earlier trauma that they need to confront if they want to change their behavior long-term and live a more fulfilling life.

Ultimately, leaders need to look to trauma-informed facilities to define the optimal purpose of a detention facility. An environment that fosters safety and trust can help inmates get to a place where they can mentally begin to address their issues. When people feel safer and comfortable, they will start to respond to attempts at rehabilitation.

It is also aspirational—there is proof of positive outcomes with these programs. Inmates have the opportunity to overcome neglect, abuse, and the other traumas that informed their criminal behavior. And the leaders and designers who espouse this philosophy have an opportunity to help individuals rebuild their lives and help their communities grow stronger.


Jeff Goodale, AIA, ACA, is director of HOK’s global Justice group. He can be reached at