Correctional facilities are more than just buildings or structures. They are human habitats that profoundly affect the well-being and rehabilitation of those who live and work within their walls.
A high percentage of the incarcerated population have neurodivergent conditions, often struggling to acclimate to the highly structured conditions in detention or correctional centers. Addressing their specific needs through inclusive design strategies is essential, and ultimately, these strategies benefit everyone—even those not overtly impacted by neurodiversity issues.
Inclusive design strategies are essential for several reasons:
- Environmental sensitivity: Thoughtful design elements establish supportive environments for individuals with heightened sensitivity to light, sound and space.
- Communication and social interaction challenges: Spaces promoting social engagement enhance participation in rehabilitation programs.
- Equity and justice: Catering to neurodivergent residents’ requirements ensures equal opportunities for successful reintegration into society.
Chronic staffing challenges also pervade detention and correctional facilities, with some states even resorting to National Guard deployment for assistance. In 2022, the Federal Bureau of Prisons saw a staffing decline and a 21% vacancy in budgeted correctional officer positions. It’s important to address the well-being of all staff working in these facilities, as they often face high levels of stress and pressure, which can substantially impact their mental and physical health. Inclusive design strategies that cater to the needs of neurodivergent staff can enhance health and wellness, while attracting and retaining qualified individuals.
Incorporating the seemingly paradoxical concept of providing incarcerated individuals with more choices within the tight constraints of a correctional environment poses a challenge. Residents and staff usually don’t have an abundance of options. The design opportunity lies in carefully balancing security concerns with creating spaces that allow for some personal choice and control.
Through the lens of inclusive design, this article explores how HOK’s Justice designers approach six key touchpoints in correctional facilities to enhance the lives of neurodivergent individuals throughout their day.
Morning: Intake and Assessment Spaces
The intake and assessment process is a critical first touchpoint for detained individuals and staff, often occurring in high-stress environments with various stimuli. Misinterpreting neurodivergent behavior during intake can lead to improper placement, rather than diversion to behavioral health facilities. Because an estimated 65% of the U.S. prison population has an active substance use disorder (SUD), the comorbidity of neurodiversity, mental health issues and substance abuse complicates proper placement. Designers must prioritize this initial interaction to create inclusive, supportive settings.
The sun rises, casting its first light upon the correctional facility and signaling the start of a new day. Inside, individuals with diverse backgrounds and needs navigate the challenges of their daily routines. Among them are neurodivergent residents and staff, each with unique support and accommodation requirements.
A new resident, Jordan, arrives at the facility. Diagnosed with autism, Jordan struggles with sensory overload and communication challenges. The intake and assessment process is crucial for individuals like Jordan. The facility’s designers have incorporated sensory-friendly waiting areas, noise reduction features, adjustable lighting, calming colors and comfortable seating to minimize anxiety during intake. The open space ensures that all individuals are easily observable, which helps them feel safe.
Clear wayfinding and signage help Jordan navigate the unfamiliar environment, while separate intake interview rooms offer privacy and soundproofing. Staff members are trained in neurodiversity awareness, which helps them properly assess and classify Jordan to ensure appropriate support throughout his incarceration.
Mid-Morning: Housing Units and Dayrooms
Jordan moves into his housing unit, where inclusive design strategies prioritize neurodivergent residents’ needs. His private sleeping room features a window with integrated shades and views of trees in the background, adjustable lighting, and soundproofing to reduce sensory overload and promote relaxation. In the dayroom, natural light streams through windows, boosting mental health and well-being. A protected, landscaped outdoor recreation area allows Jordan to step outside, sit on a bench and connect with nature.
Dayrooms offer a variety of seating arrangements, from individual seats for personal space to group seating for collaboration or socializing. Seating areas arranged along a partial or full wall allows Jordan to feel safe because his back is not exposed. The warm wood-toned ceiling, which varies in height, adds a non-institutional atmosphere. Adaptable sensory rooms with dimmable lights and sensory tools including weighted blankets, fidget spinners, noise-canceling headphones, tactile objects and lava lamps cater to Jordan’s needs. Observation strategies help ensure the that he and the staff feel safe.
Lunchtime: Dining Areas
Mealtime can be challenging for neurodivergent individuals like Jordan due to sensory sensitivities. The dining area features ample space between tables and seating areas, access to daylight to regulate circadian rhythm and noise reduction to create a more relaxed dining experience. Varied seating options, clear signage, visual barriers and designated sensory-friendly dining areas also are available to Jordan.
Afternoon: Treatment Spaces and Classrooms
For rehabilitation and education, Jordan attends classes in spaces designed to accommodate neurodivergent learners. Flexible classroom layouts accommodate diverse learning styles and group sizes, while adjustable lighting, noise reduction, visual supports such as murals depicting nature or locally sourced artwork and access to natural light create an optimal learning environment. Sensory tools and adjacent tactile respite rooms help with self-regulation after intense sessions. Outdoor treatment or learning areas provide fresh air and natural light for a more relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.
Late Afternoon: Sensory Rooms
After a day filled with activities and social interactions, Jordan seeks solace in the facility’s sensory room, where he can engage his senses in a safe and relaxed environment. This calming space offers a range of adjustable sensory stimuli and comfortable seating options, including lounge chairs, beanbags, rocking chairs and yoga mats. Aromatherapy and visual stimulation enhance the experience, while sound masking devices and music speakers help manage unwanted noise.
The sensory room also includes tactile elements, such as felt or composite wall panels and fidget spinners, to engage the sense of touch. Gustatory options include flavored water, mints and gum, and a variety of snacks to cater to Jordan’s sensory needs.
Clear wayfinding and signage make it easy for Jordan to locate the sensory room, while accessible design accommodates residents with mobility challenges.
Evening: Staff Spaces and Workstations
For neurodivergent staff members like Rebecca, who has ADHD, inclusive design strategies create supportive work environments. Quiet zones separate from the incarcerated population provide a peaceful retreat for staff needing to recharge or decompress after a stressful interaction, while adjustable lighting and flexible workspaces cater to diverse working preferences.
Ergonomic furniture in staff areas improves comfort during long work hours, and access to natural light, fitness centers and outdoor spaces positively impacts mental health and overall well-being. Dedicated training facilities ensure that staff like Rebecca can effectively support the incarcerated population and their colleagues.
The Transformative Power of Inclusive Design
The pursuit of a more inclusive and equitable justice system is an ongoing challenge. As awareness of neurodiversity grows, so must our efforts to create environments catering to diverse needs. While designers cannot alter the inherent structure of the justice system, we can make a tangible difference by collaborating with clients to emphasize inclusive design strategies. This will empower neurodivergent individuals to navigate their daily routines with dignity and support.
Focusing on critical touchpoints within correctional facilities—such as intake areas, housing units and dayrooms, dining areas, treatment spaces and classrooms, sensory rooms, and staff spaces—can greatly enhance the experiences of these individuals. Paying close attention to details such as lighting, noise reduction, seating arrangements and sensory tools enables designers to create spaces that accommodate the unique needs of neurodivergent residents and staff.
Providing the necessary tools and spaces for neurodivergent individuals enhances their engagement in rehabilitation programs, education and social interactions. Inclusive design strategies also help attract and retain qualified employees, addressing the chronic staffing challenges faced by many correctional facilities.
Adopting inclusive design strategies within all types of justice facilities—including detention and correctional facilities, courthouses and law enforcement facilities—paves the way for a more inclusive, compassionate future. This notion that designers can help catalyze justice reform and support a more equitable society is a powerful inspiration for our teams.
Note: Portions of this article describe composite experiences of fictional neurodiverse individuals. Neurodiversity is a term used to describe a broad range of conditions, some of which likely will be unresponsive to design solutions. HOK’s approach to inclusive design is based on our experience as designers and architects with the objective of providing a wide range of options for users with different needs. Any attempt to address the needs of neurodiverse individuals should also include review of human resources policies, implementation of technology solutions and building operations among other considerations. HOK does not represent that any design solution discussed in this article is capable of achieving any specific outcome for an individual user.