dBx Acoustics

Acoustic design in prisons

The rehabilitation of offenders is a key feature of the modern UK criminal justice system. Why, then, is the potential benefit of acoustic design in prisons so often ignored?

My theory is that, if we were to consider acoustics both in existing prisons, and in building new ones, we would see a great number of benefits, which in turn would save the taxpayer far more than the acoustic design and treatments cost in the first place.

Let me explain why in a little more detail. Firstly, let’s consider the typical prison environment. Surfaces are generally acoustically reflective – concrete, breeze block, plastered ceilings. Older prisons also sometimes have vaulted ceilings, which leads to focusing of noise. In this sort of environment, with a long reverberation time, it is easy for noise to build up quickly to an uncomfortable level. In prison, that may be voices, shouts, banging doors, scraping chairs, radios, televisions – the noise of life, of many people living together in a confined space, amplified.

At some stage we have all been subject to unwanted sound, and no doubt felt the tension and anxiety that can bring. It’s no different for prisoners – in a situation which is by its very nature stressful, noise issues can escalate into violence. This isn’t just about the prisoners, either. As Garret Keizer writes, “a survey conducted at prison facilities in four states showed that prison staff regard noise ‘as a significant contributor to tension or stress’ and tend to worry more about their personal safety as prison noise increases”.

There’s evidence that good acoustic design in schools improves pupil behavior, as well as reducing staff sickness due to voice strain. It seems logical that this transfers to prisons too – lower stress, better behaviour, better conditions for staff, less need to shout, improved health and welfare outcomes, lower staff sickness and staff turnover.

Did you catch that mention of health and welfare? Because we can transfer a lesson from studies on hospital acoustics to prisons too. When people sleep better, their health is better. They require less sleeping medication, have lower blood pressure, and quicker recovery from health issues. The prison system could save a great deal of money if the medication prescribed to inmates could be reduced.

What would happen if we tried improving acoustic conditions in our prisons? I wouldn’t mind betting that we would soon see better outcomes. Reoffending rates are high, and whilst this is down to a number of social factors, it would be an interesting study to see if inmates subjected to considered acoustic conditions would be less likely to re offend, and whether behaviour within prisons might improve. If we aim to rehabilitate, and we want to educate inmates and give them a chance at a better future when they are released, let’s give them conditions in which they can learn and reflect.

The potential for placing acoustic treatment in prisons is often dismissed early in the design process. It may be used as a weapon, it may pose a ligature risk. We hear the same arguments in secure units, and as designers we take them seriously. However, a good acoustic consultant can work with the design team to find robust, effective and safe solutions. For just a little effort and outlay, the benefits, both financial and social, could be enormous.