Designing the modern county jail

Facility design tips for safely and effectively managing a growing mentally ill population

Treanor Architect

LAWRENCE, KS — For more than a decade, county jails across the country have seen a surge in a population of inmates that they are ill equipped to handle—those suffering from mental illness. From New York to Kansas to California, officials are addressing an issue they can no longer ignore, and part of that solution is designing jails that can safely, effectively and humanely manage this new reality.

Mental Health by the Numbers*

  • The number of local jail inmates with mental illness rose by 48% in less than 10 years, during the last federal study period, and in many localities, continues to rise.
  • 70% of those inmates were charged with nonviolent offenses.
  • Only 1 in 6 received treatment for their illness while in jail.
    *U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report on Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates, 2006

County jails have traditionally been designed to hold those awaiting trial or serving short sentences for non-violent crimes, not those suffering from mental health concerns. However, it is possible to change jail buildings to accommodate these new populations. Justice architecture specialists at Treanor Architects offer these recommendations:

Use softer, normalized materials and space layouts. While a typical jail design lends itself to isolation and uses harsh materials, hard, concrete environments create noise levels that can disturb those with brain disorders. Softer, more natural environments can have the opposite effect. From choice of flooring and furnishings to how spaces are set up for socialization, a jail environment can either aggravate disturbing behaviors or invoke a sense of safety and calm.

Rework intake spaces for safer orientation. It’s important for jail officials to establish a sense of safety and set appropriate expectations from the start. Intake areas may include spaces for booking, administration, physical and mental health assessments, phone calls and orientation on jail rights and rules. Jails may also replace concrete booths and mesh walls to remove barriers and unease during initial interviews, or add observational cells to watch new arrivals more closely during their first 48-72 hours.

Leverage natural light and sight lines. Daylight is proven to keep people healthy. Jails can provide sunlight exposure through landscaped courtyards, while still visually confining them from street view. Rooms and cells can take advantage of existing natural light and use reflective paint colors. Larger windows on cell doors allow officers to see in and inmates to see out, creating transparency within the environment.

Create diverse housing options. A suite of housing options beyond the single cell allows jails to staff for proper levels of supervision and better manage changing populations. In addition to individual cells, medium-security pods may include larger cells designed for two people, while minimum-security pods may include multi-person dorms. For those at risk of self-harm, crisis cells may include intercoms for emergency contacts, beds without spaces underneath, no hooks or removable items that can be used for injury, and appropriate, non-harmful windows and fixtures.

Add treatment spaces. Mentally ill offenders are constitutionally guaranteed basic mental health treatment, yet many jails are not able or equipped to fulfill this right. Although the jail mission is custodial, jails are increasingly acting as human service providers, and that means a more therapeutic environment and additional staff. The modern jail may include programming spaces for psycho-education groups and medication education, informal education spaces where tables and chairs can be pulled together, and basic physical and mental health clinic spaces.

Accommodate basic needs. For the mentally ill, a lack of basic privacy can escalate behaviors and present a safety issue. Jails should include an adequate number of showers, toilets and sinks, all with a reasonable level of privacy. New technologies, such as electrified switch glass, offer new options for privacy and control, allowing inmates to switch the glass on for privacy while still allowing staff to track movement.

Treanor Architects’ Justice studio, based in Lawrence, Kansas, helps communities maximize the performance of their public buildings, including courthouses, jails, juvenile centers and administrative facilities. Treanor specializes in functional and effective design that achieves justice objectives and reflects the civic community. Learn more at

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