Rethinking Correctional Facility Design

The shift in focus to rehabilitation rather than warehousing prisoners sparks changes in facilities.

In Shawshank Redemption Morgan Freeman’s character finally gets out after 30 years in prison and finds a job stocking shelves at the local grocery store. In a poignant scene, when the store manager tells him he doesn’t need permission to go to the restroom, Freeman’s character replies, “I almost can’t go unless somebody tells me it’s okay to take a piss.”

Although we call our prisons and jails “correctional facilities” historically they’ve been designed for punishment. When an inmate is released, that person is dumped back into the community with no training or behavioral modifications attempted. We expect that the incarcerated will magically change once released. Our firm’s founder, Paul Rosser, was keenly interested in social justice and this disparity in expectation and reality.

Friends with Andrew Young, Rosser supported the Civil Rights movement. In his professional life he saw an opportunity to engage in thoughtfully designing more normative environments that would provide humane housing rather than simply locking inmates up and warehousing them. I’m honored to lead our Criminal Justice Group and carry on this important work. In most communities across the United States, crime and arrests are down. The growth curve is flattening. We’re no longer in an arms race, fueled by the war on drugs, to see who can build the most beds for the least amount of money like we were throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Now that we’re done with that era, facility managers are beginning to ask the question: What are we really doing with this facility?

Kalamazoo exterior2

With the push for rehabilitation and the reduction of recidivism, forward-thinking correctional facility managers are proactively finding ways to support the twin missions. This is especially a crisis point among juvenile justice facilities where costs for housing young people are shockingly high in many parts of the country.

Direct Supervision

I recently met with the manager of the Jackson, TN, jail. He’s probably my age and has been in corrections his entire career, ever since the thinking was centered on “lock ’em up and keep ’em in.” He has attended National Institute of Corrections meetings on Planning of New Institutions (PONI) focusing on the reduction of recidivism. His eyes have been opened to the opportunities afforded by direct supervision, which is a tremendous boon to the correctional industry.

For the longest time, we put prisoners behind bars and correctional officers were in the control tower or interacted with their charges via intercom or from behind attack-resistant glass.

The new thought gives correctional officers the opportunity to correct inmates’ behavior by making them the leaders of the housing units and having them live among the prisoners. Some old school officers resist this new model, but those who embrace it are finding it works well.

Kalamazoo County Juvenile Center in Michigan engaged me to implement direct supervision. We normalized the living environment, so that it no longer felt like kiddie jail. We designed large, normal-looking windows fronting on courtyards, a teaching kitchen, a shop, and music and science classrooms. It’s an award-winning facility providing a wide-range of services, including an alternative school, day reporting and after-school programming.

Specialty Housing and Services

In Dearborn County, Indiana – an affluent community where more and more people were going through the county criminal system due to drugs and alcohol – we designed specialty housing units to support the Jail Chemical Addiction Program. Offenders have to apply to get into the program. Those accepted are housed in a dormitory with nicer floor coverings, better furnishings and more opportunities for recreation. The counseling rooms are adjacent to the communal living and recreation area, which provide for an intensive counseling environment while still providing a feeling of community with the other participants in the program. We used high-efficiency windows in the step-down housing units to allow more light in. The day rooms have loose tables, chairs, and a television with plenty of spaces to encourage social interaction. The addition of the specialty housing resulted in the overall doubling of their jail space, allowing them to leverage their new space for a greater purpose than simply warehousing inmates.


In Hamilton County, Indiana, an upscale community, there were a lot of people getting locked up for not being able to control their drug and alcohol addictions. Company executives were getting DUIs along with soccer moms who had too much wine at book club or were hooked on prescription drugs. Rather than lock them up for nine months in a 7-by-10 ft. cell and expect them not to do it again, community leaders wanted to make an investment to change the behaviors getting people into trouble. When all was said and done, the county spent about $46 million on 200 alternative incarceration beds, a mental health unit, and better intake with the goal of getting those eligible into diversion programs pre-trial. Despite the substantial investment, not a single traditional “lock ‘em up” bed was constructed.

In Eastman, Georgia, we are working with a juvenile justice housing unit that was built in the 1980s. We’re adding a behavior modification unit with classrooms, a training kitchen and counseling offices. Investing in teaching those incarcerated skills and giving them the support they need to be productive when they rejoin their communities makes so much more sense than warehousing. That’s justice served.

Mark Van Allen

Mark Van Allen

Mark R. Van Allen, Vice President and Director of Rosser’s Justice Group, is a national thought leader on modern correctional facilities. Click here to learn more about Rosser’s Justice Design group and our delivery of modern correctional facility designs that support rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

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