Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the role it plays in correctional design

By Craig Blewitt

Have you ever noticed how some built spaces feel inherently comfortable and homely, and others can feel unwelcoming and unnerving? From a design perspective, there are many factors behind this dichotomy – scale, materiality, orientation to name but a few.

As designers, we always aim to create comfortable and welcoming spaces, but have you ever paused to wonder how that feeling of being truly comfortable is created on a psychological level? Instead of thinking about what a place needs for us to feel comfortable, perhaps we should be asking the reverse - what do we need to feel comfortable in a place?

If you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology class, you’ve more than likely heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory. Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. If we start at the bottom of the hierarchy and move upwards, the needs are physiological, safety, love or belonging, esteem, cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualisation and transcendence.

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The bottom four needs are characterised as deficiency needs. These needs arise from deprivation and are said to motivate people when the need is unmet. The motivation to fulfil deficiency needs becomes stronger, the longer they are denied. For example, the longer you go without food, the hungrier you are. The top four needs are characterised as growth needs. These stem not from the lack of something, but from a desire to grow as a person.

All sounds a bit too cryptic and abstract? Stick with me; it gets interesting when you apply this theory to the buildings and spaces we live in and view their design through this lens. For me, it gets even more interesting when you apply the theory to my area of expertise, the design of correctional facilities.

In many ways, the hierarchy that Maslow has given to human needs mirrors the progression that we aim for prisoners to experience during their time inside. Firstly, they are given accommodation and a place in which they hopefully feel safe (the basic needs).

Then, through programs and counselling, they try to repair relationships and rebuild their sense of self-esteem (the psychological needs). Finally, with education and rehabilitative support, prisoners hopefully reach a point where they have the skills and confidence to rejoin society upon their release (the self-fulfilment needs).

If the ultimate goal is for prisoners to progress to through the needs to reach the self-actualisation stage (rehabilitation) and the transcendence stage (helping others), then we need to consider what we can incorporate into designs to help each of the preceding needs to be met.

Ravenhall Correctional Centre.   Photography by Scott Burrows Photography.

Ravenhall Correctional Centre. Photography by Scott Burrows Photography.

Physiological needs

While all prisons provide the basic needs of shelter and food, the design of facilities determines how well these needs are met. This includes the provision of natural ventilation for fresh air, heating and cooling to maintain a comfortable temperature range and acoustic treatments that allow for a quiet place for rest. All of these areas help in meeting the physiological needs of prisoners.

Safety needs

Creating an environment that feels safe for both staff and prisoners is always a challenge. The knee jerk reaction is often to create physical barriers to separate prisoner groups from each other and staff.

But simple things like designing in good passive surveillance, encouraging interaction between prisoners and staff, and the creation of spaces that range from private areas of seclusion to larger communal spaces, can often have a greater effect in making a correctional facility feel safe.

Love and belonging needs

We often, quite rightly, focus on destressing and normalising the experience for visitors so that prisoners can maintain a connection to loved ones. However, to properly address the need for ‘belonging’, our designs also need to enable a sense of community within correctional facilities, particularly for prisoners with longer sentences. Small things like creating gardens that prisoners can look after, and the installation of prisoner artwork can create a sense of ownership and belonging.

Hopkins Correctional Centre.   Photography by Scott Burrows Photography.

Hopkins Correctional Centre. Photography by Scott Burrows Photography.

Esteem needs

A great example of building self-esteem through design is the design of spaces that cater for people with disabilities to provide them with an increased sense of dignity and independence. The same focus on increasing dignity and independence can also be applied to the design of correctional facilities.

Technologies such as full-body scanners can improve prisoners sense of dignity through reducing the need for strip searches, the use of self-catering facilities for meals and laundry can improve prisoners sense of independence, and the provision of educational programs can provide prisoners with a sense of achievement. All of which can help improve prisoners sense of self-worth.

Cognitive needs

Inside a correctional centre, the freedom to learn and absorb knowledge can often be restricted by the environment. However, technology is making information and learning more and more accessible to prisoners.

About the Author

Craig Blewitt is one of our most experienced correctional architects, managing all correctional and justice projects in our Brisbane Studio and assisting on the large correctional projects managed by our Melbourne Studio.