Behavioral Health Advancements in Correctional Facilities

Design in correctional facilities has come a long way within the past few years. Facilities that used to be considered cold, sterile, and strictly institutional, are now being looked at in a new light. Modern prisons and jails are aiming for more humane settings, putting safety and rehabilitation first.

Incarcerated individuals, over 30% of whom have been diagnosed with a mental illness, spend most of their sentence within the same few rooms. Because of this, it is important to design these environments to be safe, comfortable, and normalized. As Dr. Marayca López and Laura Maiello-Reidy state in their article, Prisons and the mentally ill: why design matters, “it is just not feasible to expect individuals to become healthy in an unhealthy environment”.

A healthy and therapeutic environment is key to treating and rehabilitating mentally ill patients. A few essential design features that impact these environments include appropriate lighting, proper acoustics, and keeping suitable temperatures. Soft colors, natural textures, and imagery are a few other design considerations that can elevate the comfort of interior space and create a sense of normalcy.

In 2019, IDO was given the opportunity to be a part of the design-build team for the new Community Justice Campus in Indianapolis, IN. It was here that we were able to implement this research and apply it to the interior design of the new Adult Detention Center.

One unique feature we incorporated in our design stemmed from the importance of positive distraction. Feeling connected to nature has been proven to reduce stress and aggressive behavior. Studies have also shown that images of nature can reduce blood pressure, improve cognitive functions, and promote emotional restoration. IDO implemented these studies through the use of colored wall panels and murals.

Pictorial murals of landscapes and other nature scenes were installed in the Waived Youth and Behavioral Health cell blocks. The murals varied in size from 15’ to over 35’ in length and depicted one of four color-specific scenes: (1) blue waters, (2) violet mountains, (3) yellow prairies, and (4) green forests.

In the larger cell blocks with higher ceilings, we were able to combine the concept of nature imagery with extra noise control. Acoustical wall panels of various shapes and colors were installed to not only control noise reverberation but create a pleasant visual that instills positive behavior and imaginative thinking.

Though our justice system is far from perfect, there are still many ways we can positively contribute to a resident’s life and journey towards rehabilitation. It is important to keep researching, learning, and implementing evidence-based design to calm incarcerated individuals, promote positive behavior, and treat mental illness at the source.


Written by Sara Kotarski