How To Design A Prison That Actually Comforts And Rehabilitates Inmates

A prison in San Diego is trying to improve the inmate experience through good architecture and design.

America has a prison problem. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, we currently have upwards of 2 million people, or about 1% of our population, in the criminal justice system in the United States. This puts us at the highest incarceration rate in the world–nearly five times that of Britain, seven times that of France and 24 times that of India. A sobering report last year from the Bureau of Justice Statistics put the recidivism rate at 75% of inmates reentering the system within five years of release.


Our approach of administering punishment instead of rehabilitation and reintegration isn’t working. One forward-thinking county in California has been willing to bet that the thoughtful application of evidence-based design (much of which uses lessons found in educational and health care design) combined with holistic, treatment-focused programming can make a dent in some of those statistics.

Lawerence Anderson Photography

The Las Colinas Detention & Reentry Facility in San Diego, designed in partnership with KMD and HMC Architects–where we both work–is the first detention facility of its kind in the U.S. that uses environmental and behavioral psychology to improve the experience and behavior of both inmates and staff. The project uses scientifically-proven research on how light, color, materials, texture, air quality, acoustics and access to nature affect mental and physical well being to inform design decisions throughout.

While new in the U.S., similar approaches to justice facility design have been used in countries across Western Europe for years–Leoben in Austria and Bastoy in Norway in particular have been recognized as two of the most humane prisons in the world. Both projects resemble small communities or villages rather than hardened, enclosed environments. The architects for these projects operated on the premise that losing one’s freedom is punishment enough, and justice facilities should be designed to address the underlying issues that brought inmates there in order to better prepare them for a successful transition back into society upon release.

Lawerence Anderson Photography

Education campuses as a model for inmate rehabilitation

When creating the plan for the Las Colinas Detention & Reentry Facility, we didn’t look to traditional prison layouts, but rather to higher education campus planning as inspiration. This decentralized approach, with different programs spread out across a campus connected by pedestrian pathways, stems from the freedom of movement concept. The idea is that if you treat inmates as autonomous and responsible human beings (albeit within a controlled and managed environment), they will be more likely to act accordingly. The environment is designed to balance safety and security with independence by minimizing physical and psychological barriers but allowing for clear sight lines, making supervision easy.

Unlike traditional jails and prisons, where most services are housed centrally in enclosed environments with little natural light or outdoor space, this campus is broken down into zones–administrative, communal, programmatic, and housing–connected by a central quad or village green intended for recreation, akin to a typical university.

Just like in a higher education environment, the program activities and the spaces they occur in are designed to promote educational, vocational, personal and spiritual growth. Across the campus you’ll find walking paths; religious service areas; spaces for academic; life skills and vocational training; and recreation areas for dance, yoga, and meditation. All of this is designed so that inmates can establish normative day-to-day routines in a less institutional-feeling environment. The system is also designed to create incentives–inmates get access to additional amenities and increasingly comfortable accommodations depending on their behavior.

HMC Architects

Evidence-based lessons from health care

The health care industry has long embraced the growing body of evidence supporting the idea that architecture and the built environment can have a significant impact on well-being and human performance. Acknowledging that over half of prisoners in America’s corrections system suffer from abuse, trauma, and mental illness (the Bureau of Justice Statistics puts that figure at 75% for women and 63 % for men), the County of San Diego and the Sheriff’s Department recognized that building a healing environment to promote well-being and prevent further psychological deterioration in inmates was imperative.

In creating Las Colinas, the design team brought in a light color palette, soft and varied materials (including wood and glass), better acoustics, and ample natural light–all of which have been shown to have a positive impact on the emotional states most prevalent among inmates and staff, like anger, stress, anxiety, sadness, and depression. To improve mood and focus among inmates, we brought nature into the interior of the space through the use of large scale photographic murals of natural settings. Many of these panoramic images represent areas of this large county, including blooming inland deserts, mountainous wooded areas, and coastlines. The staff and inmates also have a visual connection to landscape elements within the campus from interior spaces.

Lawerence Anderson Photography

The site has a vast array of outdoor amenities, including an amphitheater, outdoor meeting spaces, walking paths, public art, and extensive landscaping that the inmates maintain as part of their vocational education program. There are many places for self-reflection, small group interaction, and meditation.

These elements help to create a sense of comfort, protection and belonging, and most importantly, promote rehabilitation and healing. The Sheriff’s Department is already seeing a decline in incidents of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence.

The ability of the prison’s environment to impact recidivism depends on a variety of factors, including the commitment to these new strategies and programs. Addressing America’s prison problem is a long-term goal that will require complex solutions, but rethinking criminal justice architecture is one immediate step we can take. By using enhanced evidence-based design practices, we can create spaces that move from a punishment mindset to one of rehabilitation and reintegration, setting up current inmates to be productive members of society upon release instead of continuing the vicious cycle of circling in-and-out of the system.

About the author

James Krueger is HMC Architects’ design lead for their San Diego studio working primarily on Pre-K-12, Higher Education and Civic projects. John A.