The Impact of Mental Illness on Jail Building Design

Statistics show that more than one-third of state and federal prison inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and 44% of those housed in locally run jails have been told by a mental health professional that they have a mental disorder. Of note is that these numbers only represent formal diagnoses; the actual figures may be much higher.

What is alarming is that the number of incarcerated individuals struggling with mental illness continues to grow. That’s because the availability of private-sector inpatient psychiatric treatment beds has been declining for several decades, and some mental health facilities are even shutting their doors. The pandemic worsened the crisis, repurposing many of the already limited number of psychiatric beds to care for those battling Covid-19.

Without proper treatment for mental illness, some individuals exhibit poor behaviors and commit law violations, leading to incarceration. This influx has forced jails to house a greater percentage of inmates with a mental illness classification. In turn, they’re being forced to examine jail design considerations to respond to the growing demand.  

The Goals of Managing Inmates With Mental Illness

The first goal of any jail facility is to do no harm. Proper classification and housing of inmates is critical to achieve this primary goal. To do that requires effective screening tools during booking to determine an inmate’s needs and classify them correctly. Some mental illness stems from trauma, so ensuring an environment that is safe and non-threatening is critical. Additional goals include providing services and assisting with life skills to help reduce recidivism rates.

For those with mental illness, jails need to take extra measures to reduce incidents of self-harm, uses of force, and decompensation (when mental health symptoms intensify).

Evolving inmate classifications within the justice system have been a growing challenge for jail administrators. Finding enough beds is difficult enough, let alone determining how many beds and separate areas of a facility are needed for each classification, some of which might include males, females, transgender, those on work release, and minimum, medium, and maximum security. Additional areas are also needed for booking, activities, programs, visitations, and more.

Designing jail facilities that are conducive to the needs and treatment of those with mental illness adds another layer of complexity, yet it is a key to rehabilitation and reducing crime rates overall.

The Role of Jail Design in Promoting Mental Wellness

What does it take for a jail facility to ensure an environment that helps improve the mental wellness of inmates? Many jail building design features, both large and small, can make a major difference. 

Aesthetics and Environment

Incorporating natural lighting, textures, and elements into a facility helps to de-institutionalize the surroundings, helping to calm those who may be agitated or exhibiting other behaviors. In Wisconsin, access to natural lighting in dayrooms, dormitories, and cell blocks is required under the WI DOC 350.05 administrative code. Maintaining proper temperature levels will also help normalize the environment and lessen anxiety.

Colors play a role in managing behaviors as well. Generally, cool colors like pale blues and soft greens have a calming effect. Don’t forget acoustics; some jails have lots of concrete and hard surfaces. Baffling loud noises and echos helps inmates hear their surroundings better, and hear others when on the phone during visitation.  

Fixtures and Hardware

Detention hardware is essential in a jail facility, but added scrutiny needs to be taken to ensure that any fixtures are secure and cannot be used as a tool for self-harm or harming others. Specialized furniture, fixtures, and equipment including toilets, faucets, latches, and electronics, need to be used to eliminate such risks.  

Floor Plans

More jails are converting or adding on units to specifically address mental health concerns and behavior management. In conjunction with these changes, they’re also working to ensure living spaces for those with mental illness are efficient, accessible, and in close proximity to services, including medical and mental health programming.

Podular jail design allows for smaller units where movement is more limited, reducing stress and confusion. Podular design also generally has fewer blind spots for monitoring and safety and allows for cohesiveness between security and medical staff, helping inmates feel more secure. Some jails also provide “step-up” or “step down” housing within special needs units. These areas have softer settings, a more normalized environment, and may allow for some added privileges, all with a goal of addressing the needs of inmates with mental illness. It’s recommended to provide the least restrictive housing possible for those with mental illness based on the level of risk while still maintaining security and safety. 

A Mind Shift May Be in Order

Focusing solely on punishing individuals with mental illness for the crimes they commit often results in them returning to the system again and again. Forward-thinking justice systems take a progressive, long-term approach that focuses not just on consequences and accountability, but on rehabilitation. Additional jail staffing considerations should be reviewed with respective areas of professional non-security personnel and programming, along with volunteer opportunities that may be in order to help inmates become law-abiding and contributing members of their communities once they are released.

Too often, however, those with mental illness enter the justice system and their condition worsens, intensifying the problem and resulting in repeat offenses. With proper design, appropriate policies and programs, a team-driven approach, and buy-in from all departments, incarcerated individuals can get the help they need and become productive and thriving parts of society.

If your district is struggling with capacity and inmate classifications, especially for those with mental illness, and you’re considering building or adding on to a facility, contact the construction team at The Samuels Group for an assessment.

About the guest author:
Nancy Thelen is the co-owner of Thelen Consulting. She works with agencies, counties, municipalities and communities providing technical assistance to enhance overall operations and promote best operational practice throughout the organization. She works to facilitate excellent training opportunities for leadership and all staffing levels and specializes in facility design and overall operational needs assessments. 

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