by Jeff Goodale, HOK

Juvenile offenders spend many of their hours in a small, confined space, roughly seven to eight feet wide, ten to eleven feet long and perhaps nine to ten feet high.  They may have this room to themselves during their time there, or they may share it with someone that may or may not be at all compatible with them.  There is likely to be a window, though not necessarily, and if there is, it’s likely very small, contains little or no view and may be placed so high nothing can be seen out of it.  The floor is hard, probably unfinished.  There might be an outlet, maybe a light switch.  For a bed, it’s a thin pad on a heavy steel frame or on a hard slab of concrete.  Often, the kids will put the mattress on the floor.  Aside from this, there will be some very Spartan furnishings for keeping their possessions and being able to write down a thought on a piece of paper.

This small 8×10 unit serves as the basic environment for a young person to spend their time in a juvenile detention or correctional facility.  That is the most common denominator among all of these facilities, new or old.  Beyond the 8×10 room, the physical and philosophical make up of any of these facilities becomes quite diverse.  Some embrace the latest thinking on how to house, care for, educate and rehabilitate youths in a detention setting. And some don’t. 

As architects, we occupy a small, but unique and vital role in the development of these facilities.  Though when viewed as an overall project timeline, the amount of time architects typically are involved in projects is a sliver, the impact we have on the facilities is highly significant.  Projects are typically envisioned as a reaction to filling a need years ahead of when they are typically built, often as much as 5 years.  During that time, the true genesis of the facility takes place and many important decisions are made;  how many beds, what types of beds, where will it get built, how much will it cost, how many staff will be required, what it will it cost to run every year, what is it replacing or adding onto, and what might it look like.  Sometimes, but not all the time, considerations are made for what impact this facility will have on the youth, families, staff, policy makers and the community at large. 

As architects, designers and planners, we are sometimes very involved in programming of these facilities, but we often are not.  Often, the program is done and we have little impact on the final outcome of the program, which is the basis for all design, construction and operations.  When the programming takes place, decisions are made that shape the facility in a profound way.  For instance, how many beds will we build, and what will those rooms be like?  Will the kids have their own room, or share?  Will they share with one or two or five or seven other youth?  What kind of windows will they have?  What kind of furniture and equipment? 

Decisions are made regarding the supervision of the youth, whether they sleep in closed rooms or in dormitories.  Are all the rooms on one floor or more?  Is there a youth officer on the floor with the kids, or in a booth?  What about the number of kids in a living unit, should there be 8?  12?  32?  64?  What access do the kids have in their unit to counseling, medical attention, educational materials, even recreational space? 

Very key, how will the kids be divided, will they be randomly placed, within their unit or their room, or will they be thoughtfully placed according to their age, their temperament, background, psychological and emotional needs?  Will they be able to have some level of privacy and protection from predatory minors?  Will the predatory minors be placed in a higher security unit where they can be addressed in a more specific manor?  Also, where will the kids eat?  Shower?  Go to the bathroom, and will they have privacy when they need to do this?  Will the kids be separated by gender, and how will they be able to be together, supervised for periods of time, but be separated when that needs to happen?

During programming, many decisions regarding cost and operations are also made.  Beyond the initial cost of the facility, the bricks and mortar, decisions are made about the amount and kinds of staff that will be present and required to run the facility.  Besides officers and administration, counselors, teachers, food service, maintenance, all types of other personnel will be identified.  The types of heating, cooling, water management and security systems are also identified.  All of these decisions depend on the time, care, expertise and collaboration that exist during the planning and programming of the facility.

Often when we as architects come into the picture, the major decisions are made, and it is our job to make the best use of the resources that have been allocated for the facility.  We start with the living units, the dayrooms, classrooms and bedrooms.  A tremendous amount of effort is made to get these areas right in the planning, as they have the largest impact on the overall facility, the youth and the staff.  Great care is taken in determining balances between safety, security and environmental quality.  Windows, as an example, should provide plentiful daylight, and hopefully, inspiring or at least therapeutic views, but have to be secure, which requires them to be mounted at varying heights, with heavy security steel and glass and narrow openings that a juvenile couldn’t fit through or harm themselves on.  Similar discussions take place regarding toilets, light fixtures, carpet, electrical outlets, door knobs, everything.  All decisions are first rooted in the preserving the safety of all occupants, then the security, aesthetic qualities, maintenance and cost considerations, and ease of use. 

During the design phase, architects employ many different types of technology to assist users in visualizing the space they will occupy.  Tours of facilities known for employing ‘best practices’ help facilitate this effort. 

It’s been demonstrated that juveniles are most successful in environments that are as close to normal as possible.  These environments encourage safe interaction with other kids, staff, their families and other people that they encounter.  Lighting and sound levels can be adjusted for rest and some level of privacy, and livelier interiors and surroundings prove to be more stimulating and beneficial than hard, cold, institutional settings.  Access to the outdoors and natural light are also vitally important to the well being of these kids. 

We often wonder what it might be like if we were to be involved in an ideal project.  Obviously, well thought out funding and program identification are keys, but for us, early involvement in the process of planning the project is always an advantage that we don’t often have.  While we have the capabilities of programming a facility, we can also advise early on about facility impacts made by decisions that occur early in the process.  We know that we can offer sustainable, low cost and maintenance solutions to the facilities that save money and create a more efficient, better run facility.

While these facility issues are important, understanding what outcomes we seek with the youth and how the design of the environment impacts those results is really the most important consideration we deal with.  After all, a poorly designed facility will lead to increased safety and security issues, recidivism, poor staff morale and overall, a facility that fails to fulfill its mission. In reaching understandings, we think it’s really key that all stakeholders are involved:  people from the jurisdiction, all from the criminal, youth services, and policy side; the people that will operate the facility, from administrators to officers, to counselors to those that will care for it; programmers, that understand the latest issues and approaches to juvenile justice and treatment; and construction experts, those that can understand the cost and construction impacts of decisions as they are being made.  A holistic group would also include financial experts, sustainability implementers, dieticians, physical therapists and others that can benefit the project in positive ways.  As architects, we are skilled at and enthused by, the opportunity to work with all of these stakeholders and synthesize a solution to reaching positive outcomes for our youth that are effective and lasting.  

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