Normalisation in the Correctional Environment

Normalisation has become a bit of a buzzword in the design of correctional facilities, but what does it really mean? A group of the Guymer Bailey team sat down recently to discuss what constitutes a normalised environment and how close we’re getting to achieving it.

What does normalising a correctional environment mean? What do you see as the main benefits?

Kavan Applegate –  The normalisation of ‘what’ needs to be asked. Is a correctional environment aiming to be/look/feel like a house? Or a school campus? Is a cell trying to feel like a bedroom? Or is it more about normalising daily routines and activities? “Normal” environments are often messy or untidy, but institutions aim to be clean and tidy. Is it OK if a cell is a mess, like someone lives at home? Maybe ‘normalised’ isn’t the right word?

Yoshi Seki – In my opinion, normalcy is about allowing prisoners to manage their life within prison to give them a better chance of adjusting back into society upon release. Normalisation comes about through a combination of the physical environment and the way the correctional centre operates. It’s about emphasising the rehabilitation aspect more than punishment, which ultimately reduces chance of reoffending. 

Hopkins Correctional Centre.  Photography by Scott Burrows Photography.

Hopkins Correctional Centre. Photography by Scott Burrows Photography.

Rachel Hur – For me, it’s about providing a humane space – which is difficult to define because there are so many different views on corrections and there is a certain dogma around what a prison should be.

Amanda Larsson – The environment should cater for the natural variations in people’s personality and mood. The interiors and landscape should cater for everything from large active social groups, to quieter conversation spaces and areas of solitude. The simple act of providing variation in the size of seating groups can create different zones of privacy and interaction that mimics societal norms.

Ben Roberts - I think the research on this topic speaks for itself. We need to change the mentality of prisons as a tool of punishment. How can people be expected to rehabilitate and normalise back into society if we lock them in a hard concrete box?

Alie Kennedy - Making sure that it is not institutional is so important for rehabilitation of the prisoners. I see that giving the prisoners an environment that they can be proud of will generally encourage them to treat it with respect, as well as changing their mood about their environment and themselves and each other. We know that most prisoners have not had the easiest life and a “normal” environment might be the one they have never experienced – which comes back to Kavan’s earlier point about defining what ‘normal’ means. I think we need to do our bit to promote this and contribute to dropping recidivism rates as much as we can. 

Ralph Bailey - If prisoners are treated well and given opportunities, they can develop behaviour management and self-control skills, and can learn vocational skills that will benefit them on their return to society. Treat them poorly and they’re more likely to leave prison angry and with limited skills to obtain work and integrate back into society, which makes recidivism more likely.

Craig Blewitt – I agree, prisoners are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The vast majority of prisoners are released back into general society at some point, so it’s important that the conditions inside help prisoners to develop and maintain a normalised routine so that they’re better prepared for release. Simple things such as getting up and going to work or education, taking care of their own health, meals and laundry can play a huge role in helping prisoners transition to normal life once they are released.

Ralph Bailey – Ongoing visitation from family and friends is critical to normalising the life of prisoners. It allows them to maintain and, in many cases, repair the relationships that will support them throughout their sentence and underpin their integration back into society when they’re released.

Amanda Larsson – The landscape environment plays a huge role in destressing this experience for visitors. The approach to the site, and the walk from the carpark to the gatehouse set the tone for the visits experience. The connection between the gatehouse and visits which can often be a sterile and confronting environment, has the opportunity to provide a zone of respite for visitors to decompress after moving through security screening – and we have had the opportunity to embrace this approach in recent projects.

Ben Roberts - Nature and the built environment can drastically change people’s emotions, and there is no reason a prison can’t take advantage of this. If we provide spaces where visitors feel welcome, they’ll come back. If we can provide spaces where prisoners can reflect, learn, grow they must have a better chance when they get back into society.

Rachel Hur – It begins with the architecture of the whole place because it can influence how someone feels and acts in a space. Therefore, being able to inject elements for basic human needs such as access to daylight, fresh air and nature are very fundamental and pretty much a necessity for any sort of design.

Yoshi Seki – I couldn’t agree more, and I think that’s where design can play a big role. Prisons are often a very confrontational place for visitors, so by making the experience for visitors – the gatehouse, security screening and the visits centre – as welcoming as possible, it helps to encourage visitors to return.

Hopkins Correctional Centre.  Photography by Scott Burrows Photography.

Hopkins Correctional Centre. Photography by Scott Burrows Photography.

How do you balance creating a normalised environment with the security and movement control required for a correctional centre?

Ben Roberts - This is the challenge. In part comes down to the architecture and partly the operations. I think we need to rely on both for the best result and not just one or the other. We need architecture that gives prisoners opportunity and need to trust the staff enough to manage this.

Rachel Hur - This is actually quite an interesting design challenge. The security and movement control are obviously a top priority for the safety of everyone in the facility, including staff, but it’s trying to find a creative solution for “normalising” this that’s a good challenge and can be achieved in different ways.

Yoshi Seki – I think the approach generally depends of the security level of the facility as this often determines the level of freedom afforded to prisoners and the approaches we take as designers to normalising the environment. An example would be the selection of finishes to suit different security levels of accommodation. In a minimum-security facility, we’re able to select more domestic style finishes in order to soften and normalise environment. Where dealing with higher security classifications, we need to specify more robust and durable materials, so the challenge becomes making selections that still create a normalised and engaging feel for occupants.

Amanda Larsson – The same consideration for materiality and finishes applies in the landscape design for different security classifications. Our objective is always to ensure enough soft scaping in the form of garden beds and trees make it into the design without compromising safety, but the security level then influences how we achieve that objective. In lower security facilities the experience of the landscape is generally tactile – planting prisoners can touch and interact with. In higher security facilities its more of a visual connection to borrowed landscapes, with the accessible landscape elements becoming more subdued.

Ralph Bailey – The effective segregation and movement controls for different prisoner cohorts can also help to provide normalised environment for all prisoners. By designing correctional facilities to reduce the likelihood of conflicting prisoner groups from coming into direct contact with each other, it helps to create a sense of safety for prisoners. And, this is even more-so when it can be achieved without relying on timetabling to avoid the interactions. When a prisoner feels safe in their environment, they’re more likely to be more social and more willing to participate in rehabilitative and vocational programs and training.

Amanda Larsson – How you go about creating a secure barrier to accommodation communities or a whole facility can have a huge impact on the whether an environment feels normalised or not. While there is always the security reality of needing fences and walls to contain and separate prisoner cohorts, innovative design solutions can break down the visual scale of the barriers. Through varying materials and creating views to landscaped spaces through and beyond the fences and walls, it can decrease the feeling of prisoners feeling enclosed or being ‘caged in’.

Ben Roberts - Technology is providing opportunities for managing prisoner movements, and this is something that will keep improving. Advancements and cost reductions are already allowing surveillance in areas that would have previously put a guard in a dangerous position. I’m sure this will improve further allowing us to stretch correctional design in ways that we couldn’t before.

How close are we getting to creating a truly normalised correctional environment? What areas can we improve on or give more consideration to?

Kavan Applegate - I think we’ve come a reasonable distance toward a normalised environment in some jurisdictions. Hopkins Correctional Centre and Ravenhall Correctional Centre both have open campuses which are approaching the scale and aesthetic of university campuses. Individual buildings still use concrete and blockwork, which is necessary from a construction approach, but there definitely needs to be more focus on reducing the scale of the large accommodation buildings – at least in terms of visual bulk, variation, and colour.

Yoshi Seki - I think the design of cell fit outs and colour schemes still needs more work – this is where many prisoners spend the majority of their time. While the need to minimise ligature points does decrease design options, and the robustness requirements limit the options for materiality, this is an area that will see more development in the coming years.

Rivergum Residential Treatment Centre.  Photography by Scott Burrows Photography.

Rivergum Residential Treatment Centre. Photography by Scott Burrows Photography.

Craig Blewitt – I think smaller scale projects such as the Rivergum Residential Treatment Centre and Totalspace Design’s redevelopment of the Ruby Unit at Adelaide Women’s Prison have shown how the incorporation of many materials not normally allowed within secure facilities allows the creation of a very domestic feel within quite a secure environment. And, with minimal risk.

Alie Kennedy – These projects have gone a long way to creating a normalised environments for prisoners, but we still have to acknowledge the security overlays of the environment we’re designing means that normalising every aspect of a prison design has limitations – and that inspires us to constantly strive to find ways of getting as close to the normalised environment, within these limitations.