The Environmental Psychology of Prisons and Jails:
Creating Humane Spaces in Secure Settings

The Environmental Psychology of Prisons and Jails: Creating Humane Spaces in Secure SettingsAuthor: Richard E. Wener
Publisher: New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 314p.
Reviewer: Russ Immarigeon | July 2013

Whether as a criticism or as an objective, the feasibility of humaneness in jail operations or prison life has long been a concern of administrators and reformers alike. Indeed, the likelihood of creating humane spaces in secure settings has always been a challenging project, so it is both interesting and historically important that architects, planners, psychologists and others have grappled with it increasingly over the past few decades. Ironically, the prospect of such humane space has become, unwittingly if not deliberately, a catalyst for the growth of the prison-industrial complex. Given that the pace of recent innovations addressing this matter keeps accelerating, it is especially timely for a new review of what we know about what is being done. Can confinement, in fact, be done humanely? What role does physical structure have in such an outcome? What would it look like and how would it come about?

In The Environmental Psychology of Prisons and Jails, Richard E. Wener acknowledges these challenges and contradictions in this comprehensive report. Jails and prison, for him, “represent more than just warehouses of bed space for arrested and convicted men and women. They are more complicated environments than just good or bad, comfortable or not. The design of a jail or prison is critically related to the philosophy of the institution, maybe even of the entire criminal justice system. It is a physical manifestation of society’s goals and approaches for dealing with arrested and/ or convicted men and women, and it is a stage for acting out plans and programs for addressing their future.”

Wener is a professor of environmental psychology in the Department of Technology, Culture and Society at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, where he co-directs a Sustainable Urban Environments program. He is also associated with the Center for Green Building at Rutgers University. For over three decades, Wener has evaluated the impact of correctional architecture on the behavior of prisoners, correctional operations, and jail and prison staff. His work began in 1975 with evaluations of “new generation jails,” such as the federal Metropolitan Correctional Centers in Chicago and New York. He has also assessed conditions of confinement for the development of American Correctional Association standards of practice.
In this volume, Wener offers three sections. In the first, he provides a history of the correctional design, development, and implementation of direct supervision jails. More specifically, he describes the development of direct supervision jails as a design and management system, he evaluates the post-occupancy experiences of early direct supervision jails, and assesses the effectiveness of direct supervision jails. The second section examines a handful of corrections-related environment-behavior issues, including privacy, personal space, and territoriality; prison crowding; isolation; noise; and windows, light, nature, and color in jails and prisons. Finally, in section three, Wener outlines an environmental and contextual model of jail and prison violence.

Wener opens this volume describing the architectural, historical, and organizational context for the federal Metropolitan Correctional Centers in Chicago, New York, and San Diego. Dubious that incarceration is any less harsh or punitive than the penalties that preceded its introduction in the late 18th-century, he establishes the place of “hard barriers” and the role of “creativity” within the history of correctional design. The first direct supervision jails, which opened in the mid-1970s, looked different, internally as well as externally, and operated differently, under a functional unit management system. Correctional officers were brought out from behind locked gates and non-institutional fixtures, furniture, and materials were introduced. These features, Wener notes, were not entirely new, but evolved from past practice. Still, lessons were learned (“documenting a level of success many thought unlikely”) from these early experiences. Direct supervision’s successes include being viewed by staff and prisoners alike as a safe environment, clear staff control of the institutional environment, reduced construction and operational costs, and an ability to overcome incomplete implementation [direct supervision “appears able to survive overcrowding, environments harder than originally proposed, fixed (tough open) officer stations, dormitories instead of private cells, and high inmate-officer ratios”].

Wener’s discussion in the second section of this book covers a mix of environment-behavior issues that have received varying degrees of attention over the past several decades. Common to them all, he notes, is the fact that territoriality, crowding, isolation and noise “will increase stress, tension, and the likelihood of negative and aggressive behavior, especially among those inmates with the poorest impulse control and most aggressive tendencies – younger prisoners.” Organizational adaptations can reduce the impact of these forces, he states, but other problems remain, such as suitable access to an adequate level of medical and program services.

“Violence can shape policy and design,” Wener states in the concluding segment of this volume. And violence, he adds, is at the center of institutional life in jails and prisons, although prisoners are not fearful all the time. For Wener, direct supervision jails and prisons work. Accordingly, he presents “a contextual model of institutional violence” to explain this success that includes five major components: institutional context, mediating conditions, adaptive responses, violent behavior, and moderating factors. Direct supervision facilities classify incoming inmates out of harm’s way that produces “a whole different context for the inmate,” one that is open, relaxed, and nonhostile, positing nonviolent behavior as the norm. Direct supervision jails and prisons succeed, Wener notes, because they provide prisoners “access to important resources,” including the perception that “assaultive behavior will be noticed and dealt with.”

The Environmental Psychology of Prisons and Jails contains 49 photographs, diagrams and other figures, an index, and detailed reference sections at the end of each chapter. The volume itself is well-written and the author serves himself and his readers well with the historical context he establishes throughout the volume.

Graduate students and professionals in the fields of architecture and design, social work and psychology, and criminal justice and criminology, as well as those entering correctional training academies, will benefit from this volume, not just as a guide to “best practices,” but also as a base for further investigation. At one point, for example, Wener reminds us that some observers called for a moratorium on prison construction about the same time that prison populations, and prison crowding, began to soar throughout the United States. Wener dismisses this thrust, mainly because it seemed impractical given the rising tide of prisoners. This approach misses the basic point of a moratorium on prison construction, namely, not simply that no new jails or prisons should be built, but also that it is vital to establish an alternative network of probation and other community-based services that can effectively reduce, or at least control, the need for further jails or prisons.

Russ Immarigeon is an editor of Offender Programs Report

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