HOK’s Jeff Goodale on Designing More Humane Jails and Prisons
Related to the ongoing public discussion about closing New York City’s Rikers Island Prison Complex, Jeff Goodale, a director of HOK’s Justice practice, describes how architecture can create more humane jails and prisons on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show.
How does the design of jails, where people usually go as defendants, differ from prisons, where they are sentenced convicts?
Goodale: “In jails, upon intake there are a variety of issues that correctional officers and police have to deal with: people that are on different substances, people with mental health issues or people that are just violent. Often when they’re brought to the jail, the facility doesn’t know what they’re dealing with. For this reason, jails are often designed for worst-case-scenario, as opposed to a prison where you’ve been processed, you’ve been sentenced and then you’re classified.
“The modern jail is looking more at how to deal with the issues of mental health treatment and substance abuse. It’s a fine line because you have to factor in safety versus reform and rehabilitation.”
What was the approach to designing jails in the 1970s?
“For years and even today, the average age of beds was around 70 years old. We’re still dealing with a lot of old infrastructure issues. Rikers is a classic case where we hang on to older facilities that are way beyond their useful life and try make something out of them. That’s an issue.
“In the old days, before the 1970s, it was all very linear, but we didn’t have nearly as many inmates in systems. The changes to drug laws in the 70s caused the explosion that happened.
“We adjusted some things like direct supervision and there’s been a lot of experimentation. In the 1980s and the 1990s, the approach was very much to warehouse people. Today, we’re much more focused on outcomes for people. The newer approaches, such as working hand-in-hand with the corrections and the mental health professionals, are providing better results. But we’re still dealing with those older facilities and what to do with them.”
During the interview, Brian Lehrer opened up the discussion to questions from listeners. One caller challenged the importance of architecture in creating humane facilities versus the importance of the personnel within the jail or prison. In his response, Goodale explained how a well-designed facility provides a better environment for interaction between staff and inmates.
“In modern design, the staff is often with the inmates, not in the old panopticon model where they’re in a glass bubble, but actually there with them,” said Goodale. “In these modern facilities, we provide exercise and programs at the unit so inmates can go out to exercise when they want to and not need to have somebody take them.
“What often happens in older facilities, where having that access presents a security threat, is that staff will be more reluctant to take them to exercise or programs and give them access to visitation because of safety concerns. In facilities where staff can safely interact with the inmates and give inmates more opportunities to meet with medical staff and their families for meaningful visitation, we’ve seen much better outcomes and reduced recidivism.”