Therapeutic prison furniture - can it help reduce recidivism?

The U.S., as probably everybody knows, has one of the highest rates of incarceration. And unfortunately, we also have a high rate of released prisoners repeating their crimes (or committing other).  For years, a lot of people have been trying to figure out how to reduce recidivism in our inmate populations.

Many people in the justice system and throughout society have considered whether how prisoners are treated during their incarceration affects the likelihood that they will return to prison. One aspect of prisoner treatment that many in the correctional industry are beginning to focus on is how prisoner cells are furnished. The type of furniture used in correctional environments can have a significant impact on the likelihood that a prisoner will commit further crimes once released. Historically, the United States criminal justice system has a primary focus on the concept of retributive justice, and such on punishment of those who have broken laws set by the state, and on using the severity of this punishment to deter the offender and others from committing crimes against the state. This focus has led to most correctional furniture being designed for durability first and comfort dead last, providing a cold and unpleasant environment meant to be part of the punishment.

However, as the New York Times reminds us, in other countries there are experiments in more humane prisons - even maximum security prisons - that focus on reintegrating prisoners with society and on humanizing them to the extent that such is allowable. Normative cell furniture is designed around the idea that the prisoner needs to be given a safe, aesthetically pleasing environment from which to begin his transition from law-breaker to law-abider. All elements of the cell are designed so that they are calming to the inmate, while reducing the opportunities for destruction from combative individuals who may be seeking to harm themselves or others. With this in mind, modern prison cell furnishings are often geared around indestructible, easy to clean furniture that has no weak points to stash contraband or break off for use as improvised weaponry. Likewise, institutional facility furniture for dayrooms and outdoor areas focuses on providing a therapeutic setting and residential appearance without providing opportunities for destructive behavior.

Some leading-edge manufacturers of detention furniture and fittings, such as Cortech USA, have been designing what they propose to be progressive cell furniture designs.  Working in collaboration with other leading detention facility supplies, Cortech's The Normative Cell is envisioned as one-stop shop for a fully furnished cell designed for the Restorative Justice Environment. The Normative Cell is a combination of a Prefabricated Sleeping Room Unit, Cortech Endurance Furniture, Prison Cell Lavatory and Toilet, and Detention-Grade Security Windows.  This model of a therapeutic environment in a prisoner cell focused around rehabilitation includes the following components:

  • A sturdy bed made from rotationally molded plastic provides durable, easily cleaned accommodations that can support a mattress and can utilize bed restraints for those with psychiatric or special medical needs. It can be bolted to the floor if necessary, and can be made with side slots or end shelving to give personal storage space without compromising security.
  • A work desk made from similar rotationally molded plastic provides a sturdy workspace for inmates that can be mounted to the floor or walls as needed without risk of breakage or other hazards.
  • A wall shelf made from similar rotationally molded plastic can be bolted to the wall to store personal possessions safely in a manner which does not allow concealment of contraband.
  • Lightweight injection-molded stacking plastic chairs are extremely strong, can be bolted down as needed, and can be easily stored in large numbers without problems, allowing them to be used in correctional environments throughout the prison as necessary.
  • A one piece acrylic or stainless steel tamper-proof mirror is designed with the look of glass mirrors without the susceptibility to breakage, allowing a residential appearance that is resistant to damage and abuse.

The traditional retribution model of justice, and its corresponding influence in furniture design, has proven to be expensive, often brutal, and dehumanizing, and may be responsible for increasing the rates of recidivism by marginalizing offenders to the point where they become more detached from their actions. However, rehabilitative justice and restorative justice are focused on reducing the chances that the offender will commit further crimes after his period of punishment has ceased, and thus, programs that focus less on making the punishment unpleasant and more on addressing the issues that led to the action are becoming more popular in communities throughout the United States.

Restorative justice combines the goal of rehabilitating the offender with the concept of taking direct responsibility for the harm their actions have caused victims, and working to provide restitution for those actions. Providing a safe and therapeutic environment for rehabilitation to occur has been proven to reduce recidivism among offenders, as well as to reduce the severity of actions taken by those who do commit future crimes. Restorative justice programs, such as the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program and other community outreach efforts, focus on cooperation with offenders, victims, and communities to assist criminals in changing their attitudes and future behavior while providing the opportunity to heal the damage inflicted on the victims of criminal activities and demonstrating to criminals the destructive effects that their crimes have caused. Through providing a therapeutic environment, prison furniture can improve the chances of these programs finding success, making our communities safer and stronger.

These new approaches and ideas have other applications too, including: behavioral health, mental health, correctional facility design, restorative justice adn rehabilitation, normative behavior, and prisoner rehabilitation. 


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