Designing Criminal Justice Reform

Commentary

Designing Criminal Justice Reform

A recent study published by the Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement in the Netherlands has found that correctional facility design can have a major impact on relations between inmates and correctional officers, as well as rehabilitative efforts.

Researchers surveyed 1,764 Dutch inmates while paying special attention to various aspects of the prisons’ design, like architectural style, age of construction, unit sizes, numbers of double bunk cells, etc. These prisons ranged in style from large-scale, 19th-century “panopticons” to high rises and campus-style layouts.

Of the many variables analyzed, the study concludes that facilities’ age of construction and its quantity of double bunks are both significantly related to inmate perceptions of their environment. Researchers say that the gloomy conditions of older prisons, which minimize privacy as well as the frequency with which officers and prisoners interact, can lead to poor relationships between the two groups. Additionally, double bunking can exacerbate tensions due to overcrowding and less individualized attention from guards. On the other hand, more modern prisons were perceived much more positively. Features like small-stacked pavilions and communal living rooms foster better relationships and also may facilitate a more rehabilitative environment.

The Netherlands however is not the only nation taking a rehabilitative approach to prison reform. Norway has also utilized design to create innovative facilities like Bastøy. This prison incorporates local landscape, uses more natural building materials, and kindles an overall sense of autonomy and accountability. At first, Bastøy might be mistaken for a private resort, as inmates have access to outdoor recreational areas like woodland jogging trails, climbing walls, and beaches. But ultimately this environment cultivates “an arena of developing responsibility,” as prison governor Arne Nilsen describes it. He believes that deprivation of liberty is punishment enough, and that it is important to create a prison environment filled with mutual respect and integrity. What’s the best way to do that? Nilsen says, “we pay attention to you as human beings.”

Recidivism rates indicate that paying attention to prisoners as human beings goes a long way. In Norway only 20 percent of those released reoffend within two years. Even more impressively, Bastøy itself reports a recidivism rate of merely 16 percent, the lowest in all of Europe. In the United States, however, 43 percent of state prisoners re-offend within three years, on average.

Conversely, U.S. prisons are overcrowded, heavily guarded, and focused on punitive justice. Decades of “tough on crime” policies have hardly paid off, as the United States prison population has grown by a staggering 800 percent since 1980, and many facilities are filled with low-level and repeat offenders.

Looking at the positive results various Dutch and Norwegian prisons have produced, it may be time for policy makers in the United States to consider replicating their rehabilitative approach to prison design.

Matt Hartill is a 2014 Summer Reason Foundation Policy Intern