Issues And Stress Offenders Face In Prison Criminology Essay

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Contemporary issues in prison design and construction include considerations for offender and staff stress, as well as offender reentry into society. Prison administrators also presently consider creative financial strategies for construction and design to advance efficiency in budget allocations and departmental management. However, prison design and construction in modern correctional environments exist primarily to alleviate extreme dynamics such as overcrowding and facility aging. American corrections is in a position of reactive approaches to mass numbers of incarcerated persons. Thus, innovative design and long term considerations in offender management cannot be considered as strongly as they were in the past. Issues in prison design and construction are based on immediate satisfaction.

Corrections in America has always reflected the most innovative measures possible in adhering to the mission of public safety. From the Auburn system of 1816, to the newly constructed supermax facilities of today, the approach to offender containment and management remains focused on the most ideal circumstance. The translation of that circumstance in the modern era merges many dynamics that have yet to be applied. The reasons for the new perspectives on prison design and construction are reflective of the present situation of American corrections. Sheer numbers of incarcerated individuals, antiquated facilities still in operation, and pressing state and federal budgets have resulted in a position requiring immediate and inventive ideas for inmate housing and management. Historically, America has implemented the most influential corrections systems and facility designs that the world has ever known. That legacy continues, as American corrections continues into the next century. Issues faced by today's corrections administrators could quite possibly be the most challenging yet. Contemporary prison design and construction processes reflect demands that have yet to be controlled, and the strategies implemented to do so are unchartered. Present day administrators have progressed to a position of quick decisions to simply maintain, rather than consider forward thinking approaches to offender management primarily out of necessity. This is simply due to the overwhelming situation that American corrections is currently facing.

Literature Review

Dallao (1997), Cowan (2007) and Sturat (2007) provided critical insight on past and current trends in prison design and construction, as well as significant incidents that have affected those trends. Gondles (2001) detailed growth and demands that have been placed upon correctional administrators in regard to offender management through facility design and reform efforts.

Cowan and Stuart (2007) examined a Connecticut prison facility, reporting on current conditions that offenders suffer due to the physical plant of the facility. Gross and Suarez (2003) discussed the stress that prison design has on those incarcerated. They further include suggestions of factors in prison design that contribute to offender management.

Lubell (2005) discussed architects unwillingness to continue to construct prison facilities. This article provided an interesting example of public opinion in regards to continued construction of prison facilities. Nadel and Phillips (1999) detailed the institution of the prototype prison design by numerous departments. Waltz and Montgomery (2003) provided another interesting alternative in their discussion of fast-track construction, a new approach to costly and time consuming construction efforts by many corrections departments.

Research completed on the topic of contemporary prison design included a site visit to the construction site of Colorado's newest supermax facility, currently in its final stages of completion. An interview with the facility's current physical plant manager was also completed. The perspective gained allowed for tangible application of literature reviewed.


The task of managing current offender populations is one that is almost incomprehensible by most standards. The demands that are faced by state and federal governments require extreme creativity in management in order to simply maintain operations. The most considerable issues include reaction to increased prison crowding caused by longer sentence, tougher approaches in dealing with violent offenders, and the criminal justice systems inability to keep pace with the nation's crime rate (Dallao, 1997). These issues now drive a trend of facility expansion and fast paced prison construction in America.

The most significant issue in current considerations for prison design and construction is the sheer number of incarcerated persons in American prisons today. The Bureau of Justice Statistics report that from 1980 to 1995, the total state and federal inmate population had grown by 242 percent (Dallao, 1997). This statistic is reflected in state and federal facilities operating over capacity on a consistent basis. Oregon state prison administrator, Lisa Strader, detailed in a 1997 interview, 'Right now, we have 7,200 beds in the system and 8,500 plus offenders. We have people in rental beds, we have everything double bunked, and we're even turning offenders sentenced to 12 months or less over to the county under new legislation' (Dallao, 1997). In March 1999, Ohio DRC's inmate population was about 48,000, at 129 percent over capacity (Nadel & Phillips, 1999). In 1997, the New York Times reported conditions at a Connecticut Prison detailing, 'Cubicles built for four are crammed with eight inmates, and enclosed areas know as dollhouses where inmates once played cards and wrote letters now hold 14 bunk beds. The corridors are lined with more beds. Each large room at the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution once had 50 beds and now has 118 (Cowan & Stuart, 2007, p. 1). Facilities are simply inadequate to effectively manage the growing populations.

Also demanding of prison administrators is the effort to maintain existing prison facilities, despite their age and inadequate physical plants. In 1995, it was reported that 45 prisons were 100 or more years old. Another 310 prisons were 50 to 99 years old. Aging facilities increase repair and maintenance costs, along with the cost of litigation and potential liability from facilities that do not meet current federal, state, and local health and safety requirements (Waltz & Montgomery, 2003). California recently completed an 8 billion dollar hospital expansion following identified issues surrounding inadequate and dilapidated medical facilities within their prison environments. The program grew from a 2001 class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of state inmates (California Prisons Begin $8-Billion Hospital Program, 2008). The facilities are simply not equipped, as they are designs of the past. The issues that drove the design and construction of facilities such as San Quentin in California and Colorado Territorial in Colorado are not as applicable to today's needs. However, prison administrators are faced with the option of maintaining existing environments or continuously constructing prisons. Corrections professionals do not have the luxury of tearing down a facility and starting over. Once a facility is designed and built, it is likely to be used for decades to come (Gondless Jr., 2001). However, the utilization of prison facilities constructed decades ago has resulted in powerful lessons in facility design needs.

Another issue affecting strategies for prison design and construction is the profile of modern offender needs and current criminal justice approaches to those needs. During the 1990's, criminal justice systems implemented tougher sentencing guidelines and sophisticated law enforcement techniques and experienced decreasing crime rates, increased arrests, rising prison populations, and heightened public awareness of crime and punishment (Nadel & Phillips, 1999). Presently, prison administrators are focused on reintegration strategies and awareness of criminogenic needs in an effort to assist in the successful return of offenders to society. Also, many correctional departments have resorted to mass release of offenders back into the community to relieve overcrowding within cramped facilities. Although innovative, these strategies are born of basic necessity rather than optional approach.

The choice that agencies must select in response to all of these factors is to add beds to their departments. In doing so, administrators face incredible budget restrictions. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, 37 states were forced to reduce their enacted budgets by about $12.6 billion in fiscal year 2002 (Waltz & Montgomery, 2003). Many agencies have resorted to creative financing solutions to construct facilities. In 2008, the state of Idaho financed a new 300-bed mental health prison. The plan would be carried out by selling $70 million in bonds. Moreover it is noted that the funds would be obtained from another source due to the $38 million decline faced by the state in fiscal year tax revenue (State Watch, 2008). Colorado has been faced with similar restrictions, as they attempt to complete construction of a new administrative segregation facility. Due to budget restrictions, opening of the facility is delayed inevitably, although construction is almost complete. In a recent interview, the facility physical plant manager commented on the state's situation. 'The state is considering opening a portion of the facility in the near future. Budget limitations prevent the state from staffing the facility fully.' (M. Fowler, personal communication, 2/25/10, 2010). Creativity in management, in the face of such pressing dynamics, is required. Agencies must be resourceful in consideration of the most effective environment possible, with the most pressing restrictions ever faced.

Facility design has become a highly critical factor in combating current corrections dynamics. Increasingly, correctional facilities are moving away from the remote supervision of inmates from separated control rooms or guard towers (Dickinson, 2008, p. 3). The separation of staff, once thought of as essential for staff safety, is now viewed as unnecessary. Many agencies are now implementing direct-supervision techniques, with design features that reflect a complete social norm environment. The model springs from a belief that, by offering as 'normal' an interior as possible, you can migrate violence and aid rehabilitation (Dickinson, 2008, p. 3). This design strategy also reflects the effort of agencies to advance community re-entry, resulting in less offender recidivism and lower offender populations. New facility designs are completed with consciousness of offender and staff stress, in an effort to embrace offender reentry, adhere to the demands of accreditation standards, and create a more manageable environment for staff and inmates.

There are a number of stress-reduction elements that are commonly incorporated into present day facility design. These include sufficient day room space, exercise and stimulus, natural light, and noise control. During the past 20 years, numerous alternatives with regard to the design of inmate housing have generated alternative layouts, most of them triangular and some with unrecognizable geometric shapes. All facility layouts are currently designed to reduce the size of a day room to comply with the American Correctional Association standard of 35 square feet per inmate (Gross & Suarez, 2003). However, the reality is that a large day room with adjacent recreation space is a primary tool for officers in reducing stress among the inmate population. Due to the increasing activity associated with day to day facility operation, adequate environments for visitation, telephone use, television, and similar activities is essential. Also critical is inclusion of adequate exercise and stimulus space within a facility.

Natural light is also a common element in modern facility designs. The single highest utility cost in a correctional facility is electricity, of which the light fixture load generates 40 percent (Gross & Suarez, 2003). Installation of skylights, windows, and clerestories, create enormous long term savings opportunities.

Noise control consideration is a design feature that has been absent of most American correctional environments. However, accreditation standards require control of noise levels today. Thus, participating agencies must attempt to incorporate limits in allowable sound levels into facility design. The vast majority of current housing units does not have any form of sound control and operate at levels that can exceed more than 100 decibels, which is the equivalent of a small jet taking off (Gross & Suarez, 2003). Sound absorption materials are now an intricate part of facility design and construction.

Architects have even gone so far as to consider the perspective of incarcerated offenders in the design of prison facilities. In 2007, 'Creative Prisons', an exhibition at the Architectural Foundation, showcased innovative thinking around the problem of how to deal with the growing numbers that our justice system incarcerates each year (Aitch, 2007). Surprisingly, the designs were similar to that of modern architects, incorporating interconnected blocks of cells. Most of the annotated diagrams related to the idea of natural light and air circulation.

Although building the most opportune environment for offender reentry is a key consideration in achieving the highest quality facility possible, prison admistrators are constantly challenged to simply keep up with rising demands for space. To meet this demand, correctional administrators are under constant pressure to plan, design, and build and open new facilities as quickly as possible (Nadel & Phillips, 1999).

Many organizations have considered options for accelerated construction. The two primary options most often seen in today's correctional systems are that of the prototype prison and the fast-track construction model.

Prototype correctional facilities are an effective solution for activating additional capacity quickly because they are based on a single design and adjusted incrementally to meet operational needs (Nadel & Phillips, 1999). Specifically, a prison design is accepted by an organization, and then the design is reconsidered, adapted, and constructed again in multiple sites. Benefits to the use of prototype designs include progressive application of identified managerial needs, ease in staff training and facility openings, and minimal construction costs. The prototype facility is particularly effective for agencies that have experienced mass growth or immediate organizational demands due to mental health and medical needs of offenders, and aging facilities in need of closure.

With fast-track construction, architects, contractors and owners work together in a design/build team from the beginning so that no extra time is spent making changes after the design is complete. Construction begins before the final design is complete, whole cells are constructed ahead of time and equipment is ordered early (Waltz & Montgomery, 2003). This model is effective in cutting construction time, allowing for the much needed opening of facilities. Another key benefit to fast-track construction is that the construction can be planned to adhere to fiscal year limitations. For example, an agency fiscal year that initiates in July, can be accommodated by simply planning construction cycles accordingly. This type of planning opportunity allows for efficiency in annual budgetary considerations. As legislators typically like to see advancements in financed construction, the fast-track construction allows for tangible improvement to be considered and noted throughout a budget cycle.

Opposition to constant and accelerated construction of facilities does exist. Architects themselves have resisted continued construction rather than innovative thinking on population control options. In September 2004, 300 members of the San Francisco based Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) began a boycott to communicate disapproval of the prison's systems lack of consideration for creative options. The boycott was an attempt to virtually halt prison construction, forcing officials to consider prison reform. The group's president, Raphael Sperry, made these comments:

'If the boycott takes hold, the lack of new prisons will force prison officials to enact prison reform instead of using prisons as a one-size-fits-all solution to social problems. If we keep increasing the number of prisons, we'll never be able to deal with the real problems that lead to crime' (Lubell, 2005).

Other opposition to continue constant facility construction comes from public opinion. Although facility construction often translates to increased job opportunity, in the light of such extreme state budget deficits, additional facility construction is perceived as unnecessary by those not directly affected by pressing issues of offender management.


Contemporary issues in prison design and construction can no longer be analyzed for their applications to criminal activity as they were in the past. Presently, prison design and construction is driven by overwhelming need for relief. Although reentry is a focus of corrections administrators, it is primarily an attempt to ease prison overcrowding through successful offender reintegration. Likewise, prison design, although embracing of offender progression, is an effort to return offenders to the community and lower the number of incarcerated persons in this country.

Agencies have embraced numerous options in attempting to construct the most efficient, effective prison environment, in the least amount of time possible. This ideal is mainly due to the immediate need for offender bed space. Prison environments of the past, although constructed under a warehousing philosophy, cannot meet the capacity needs of modern corrections. Nor can they adhere to continuously identified offender needs such as medical and mental health. The issues that have been created in these regards have been directly related to antiquated facility environments in this country, and have resulted in crippling financial situations for many agencies. Extreme budget crunches felt by state and federal agencies have also added to administrative pressure to develop solutions. However, instituting solutions is inconceivable due to the immediate need presented by the problems themselves.

Corrections administrators are faced with simply managing the current problem as it stands. This ideal has resulted in recent considerations for early release of prisoners and creative financing for additional prisons.

Although American corrections boasts some of the most innovative criminal justice processes in the world, it is currently is a state of panic and desperation. Design and construction of prison environments continue to take interesting and technologically advanced forms, but they are simply immediate solutions.