Physical environment in prisons

A summary of evidence relating to how the physical environment in prison affects people and may support rehabilitation.

The physical environment is a crucial component of a rehabilitative culture. It communicates to people:

  • how safe they are
  • whether they are seen as people who will be treated decently and given the headspace to change.

Violence and other anti-social behaviours are more frequent in dirty and dilapidated environments.

People flourish in environments that offer them hope, fresh air, views and greenery, and are clean and decent. This makes a difference both for staff and for the people in our care.

What does the evidence say about how the prison environment affects people?

Evidence is clear that the quality of the prison environment has immediate and longer-term consequences for safety and wellbeing. Prison is a stressful place to live and work, but the environment can to add to this tension.

For prisoners, overcrowding, poor conditions, lack of access to nature, poor lighting, and noise can impact on:

  • disorder and violence
  • mental and physical health
  • potential future reoffending

Poor prison conditions are also associated with reduced staff wellbeing.

Architecture and design can influence the feel, purpose and functioning of a prison. Design can help or hinder social interaction among staff and prisoners. It can also influence prison behaviour. Research suggests prisons associated with better outcomes were:

  • smaller
  • newer
  • had single cells
  • were designed with an emphasis on building relationships and community

Overcrowding can negatively affect prisoner health and wellbeing. Research links overcrowding with:

  • disruptive behaviour,
  • prisoner mental health, and
  • sometimes prison suicide (although sharing a cell can be a protective factor for some people who want to share).

There is little evidence of a direct link between overcrowding and reoffending.

Poor or unpleasant prison conditions. These are things like insects, rodents, dirt, litter, clutter, fire risks, sanitation, privacy and noise. Also, keeping people in higher security conditions than necessary. These affect order within the prison, the mental and /or physical health of prisoners, and their future reoffending outcomes.

Light, noise and sensory stimulation. Evidence suggests that improving sleep quality by improving light quality, and reducing noise may improve prisoner behaviour. Light in the daytime increases alertness and energy levels. But at night time light can make it more difficult fall asleep and stay asleep. Persistent night-time noise and door banging from disruptive prisoners reduce sleep quality. Access to views or to natural settings is likely to enhance wellbeing.

Physical environment features which support rehabilitation

Reducing overcrowding, improving cleanliness, lighting, interiors, and views of nature, may improve outcomes. Keeping people at the lowest possible security level may also help. Creating prison environments, as similar as possible to normal life outside, is likely to be beneficial. Some features are beyond the control of individual prisons. Design, some aspects of layout, size or age, cannot be changed. But there are aspects of the physical prison environment that we can improve:

  • layout, which promotes community and relationships
  • creating smaller communities within prisons, where possible
  • where possible, using single cells over double cells
  • reducing levels of overcrowding
  • keeping people at the lowest possible security prison
  • ensuring prisons are clean, and free of clutter, litter, insects and rodents
  • ensuring adequate lighting (good dark at night and use of natural light-filled spaces in the day)
  • monitoring and reducing noise levels, particularly at night to aid sleep
  • ensuring access to natural views from cells where possible
  • ensuring opportunities for recreation and personal space

The ’Scandinavian normalisation’ model suggests that prisons that reflect ‘normal’ life wherever possible can positively affect prisoners’ behaviour and outcomes. Health research also suggests physical environment factors can help patient wellbeing and healing. More research is needed. This suggests evidence-informed ways the physical prison environment can support rehabilitation and potentially improve morale and productivity:

  • designing passive and active spaces: passive spaces where prisoners and staff can be contemplative, reflective and quiet; and active spaces that allow prisoners to keep fit and have time in the fresh air
  • large communal areas, where prisoners can socialise, maximising opportunities for social interaction
  • creating interesting and varied interiors with differing views and communal spaces
  • having inspirational quotes on walls
  • removing negative messages or posters and replacing them with positive rehabilitative ones
  • using strong visual images, posters, messages and careful language to support the rehabilitative purpose of the prison
  • using artwork to provide convincing artificial views
  • creating large murals, for example whole walls
  • using a variety of colour schemes
  • colour-coding house blocks or wings to help orientation

Further reading

Prison Service Journal no 211 (Jan 2014) Explores the issues of prison, architecture, design and size.

Is Tougher Better? The Impact of Physical Prison Conditions on Inmate Violence David M. Bierie (Research Summary 2011)

How to build for success: prison design and infrastructure as a tool for rehabilitation (Blog- Penal Reform International)

Prison Spaces research project ‘Fear-suffused environments’ or potential to rehabilitate? Prison architecture, design and technology and the lived experience of carceral spaces UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Professor Yvonne Jewkes and Dr Dominique Moran.

Tell us what you think of the Prison and probation evidence resource so we can improve it.

This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 15 May 2019