Built Environments and Mental Health in Jails

Motivating Inmate Change and Facilitating a Successful Community Re-entry

Executive Summary

Due to overcrowding and significant increases in its inmate population, a Midwest County Jail expanded its bed capacity by building a new jail structure. Through collaborations, Falcon assisted this County in creating a built environment that facilitated the management and treatment of its mental health and substance abuse populations.

An inmate’s state of mind and mental health condition can be directly or indirectly influenced by properties of a jail’s built environment. Severely mentally ill inmates may become more vulnerable to jail built environments and may experience more adverse psychological consequences than individuals with less serious mental health issues.

Adverse built environments (for example, isolative housing, no sunlight, minimal or no amenities) can indirectly alter an inmate’s psychosocial process that in turn can directly impact the inmate’s sense of personal control, feelings of support, self-worth, depression, motivation, concentration, and fatigue.

The Falcon Approach to Transforming New Built Environments

In helping the County develop a built environment for its new structure, it was critically important to ensure the following elements were considered:

  1. A built environment that is less institutional, with more normative, therapeutic settings.
  2. A built environment that is enriched, supportive, familiar, meaningful, with good air quality that supports good mental and physical health (for example, access to spaces with fresh air and outdoor sunlight).
  3. Creation of environments that reinforce and motivate change, promoting successful reintegration into the community (for example, adequate programming or learning environments that help support the inmate’s re-entry into the community). Adequate numbers and accessibility of program rooms, including indoor recreation and library/multipurpose rooms, are essential.
  4. Special housing units that are appropriately organized, operationally sound, sized and configured correctly, located in the appropriate areas, not mixed with other populations, has proper ambience and is conducive to continuous monitoring.
  5. Availability of single cells for certain mental health categories to contribute to: removal of stress, anxiety, and noise; minimizing risk of harm for vulnerable inmates; and facilitation of space personalization and staff management.
  6. Development of a step-down system for suicide intervention that includes:
    • Mental-health-certified, protrusion-free, suicide-proof cells that are appropriately designed and located.
    • Transition or step-down units or dorms that are open, promoting recovery and the safe return of recovered inmates into the General Population.
  7. The incorporation of gender responsiveness that requires consideration of female offender population demographics as well as factors that contribute to female patterns of offending.

A supportive built environment and the use of evidence-based models significantly enhances inmates’ readiness for change.

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