ThinkingWellbeing in prisons: The 50p solution to violence in prisons

Ric Hampton of Hydrock Consultant Engineers discusses wellbeing in prisons and how sleep-deprivation affects incidents of violent crime in prisons.
Content Team4 years ago11 min

Sleep-deprivation does funny things to a person. Anxiety, stress and irritability are quickly ramped up to max. Becoming a dad for the first time in September 2018 was, of course, one of the happiest times of my life, but I was woefully underprepared for one vital fact: babies are rubbish at sleeping.

For seven months, my experience of sleep measured in minutes, instead of hours, with effects ranging from disorientation and clumsiness during waking hours (I nearly fell down a flight of stairs at one point) to exhaustion-fuelled arguments with my wife. For the parents out there, you will understand why the subject of babies and sleep-deprivation are so eternally bound.

You’ll also understand why a fascinating statistic about another group of people experiencing sleep deprivation in conditions beyond their control resonated with me recently.

In 2018 the staff at Buckley Hall Prison did something extraordinary. In a prison where 70% of inmates are considered high-risk offenders, incidents of violent crime were cut by 50% almost overnight. How did they achieve this? The prison administration provided 50p foam ear plugs to all inmates – that’s it. The result of prisoners getting a good night’s sleep saw an unprecedented reduction in violent behaviour – a stark but powerful reminder of the importance of sleep to our mental, and as a result, physical welfare.

It’ not just the inmates, either. Work in Mind recently published an article highlighting the terrible strain put on prison officers as a result of experiencing violence and aggression at work. The study behind the article showed that many prison officers had trouble switching off, and as a result “these officers were more likely to suffer from sleeping problems, including insomnia and nightmares”. The knock-on effect is a threat to the physical safety of both officers and inmates – and don’t think this is a uniquely British problem. Shockingly, the average life expectancy of a prison officer in the US is just 59 years of age. Let that sink in. The result of stress, hypertension, alcoholism and suicide as a result of the nature of the job means the average US prison officer will not live to see their 60th birthday.

The worldwide debate on prison reforms and rehabilitation is not a new one. For many years the Scandinavian prison system has driven world-leading results in the successful rehabilitation and reintroduction of prisoners. ‘How?’ is a hugely complicated answer that would require a complete systemic overhaul in the UK. In short, it’s cultural differences in approach. Giving prisoners ‘real rights’, and as in Denmark, acting on the philosophy that “there is no punishment so effective as punishment that nowhere announces the intention to punish”, and in Norway: “The punishment is the restriction of liberty; no other rights have been removed”.

Given the political and divisive nature of the rehabilitation vs. punishment debate, I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest we should overhaul our entire justice system to align with the Scandinavian model. But, there must be more we can do to improve not only rehabilitation but also the physical safety and mental health of those inside our prisons? Perhaps, if not systemic or behavioural, there is an engineering solution?

Yes, I’m an engineer, but here’s one thing we can surely all agree on: reducing rates of violent crime in prisons has to be a good thing. Assaults on prison staff are at an all-time high in the UK and a potential solution lies within our technical hands.

So, just like our friends at Buckley Hall Prison, perhaps the introduction of cheap earplugs across the board is a step in the right direction. But if this easy fix can provide a reduction in violent crime by up to 50%, imagine the results of designing a prison from the ground-up with health and wellbeing in mind. Would it be even more effective in reducing violence? Would it provide a significant improvement in rehabilitation? Would it help protect our prison officers? There’s only one way to find out, and I’m proposing that we have an open discussion about how we design our “correctional facilities” and our motivations for doing so.

The built environment industry already has thousands of ways of measuring the performance of a building relative to its impact on human health and wellbeing. We know, for example, that access to good daylight and a view of green space improves call handling rates in call centres, and improves retention and exam performance in schools. We also know that through good ventilation design and the monitoring of indoor air quality, we can provide environments in workplaces that are ideal for concentration and minimising errors. Giving people the ability to control their own environment, from temperature to light, has been proven to have a positive emotional impact.

When people are bombarded with unwanted noise; when it affects them during working hours and disturbs sleep; the body’s natural response is to produce an abundance of cortisol (the “stress hormone”), resulting in increased blood pressure, heart-rate, anxiety and irritability. This exposure, over long periods of everyday life can lead to heart disease, hypertension and strokes. In the amplified confines of a prison environment, the more immediate threat is angry, irritated occupants with shortened fuses. The result? Spiralling violence in our prisons, affecting both inmates and officers. The short answer to controlling excessive noise is improved sound insulation design between cells, improving reverberation time control in common areas to keep chaotic noise to a minimum, controlling noise from building services and ultimately providing a good night’s sleep.

If we well understand how to optimise building design for wellbeing, and can demonstrate the effectiveness through an abundance of peer-reviewed studies, then perhaps we should be pioneering wellbeing-focussed design standards for prisons, for the good of all society. Who knows how far-reaching the positive effects could be…

I’d like to speak to anyone from psychologists, engineers, prison workers, to contractors with a custodial focus, about what this might look like and how we can push things forward.

To find more content on wellbeing in prisons, click here

Ric Hampton leads the delivery of acoustic engineering services across the UK for Hydrock Consultant Engineers.

Ric Hampton

Content Team

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