Harmony behind bars: acoustics in prisons

Post Date
16 January 2024
James Boland
Read Time
4 minutes
  • Acoustics & vibration

What is Sensory Criminology and how can it help

The field of Sensory Criminology examines how sensory experiences, such as sight, sound, and touch, influence and shape perceptions of crime and justice. It provides insights into what makes the acoustic environment inside prisons different from other building contexts. It highlights the role that acoustics plays in the lived experience for the occupants, including incarcerated individuals and corrections staff.

In prisons, acoustics facilities communication and information gathering for incarcerated individuals, who use listening while in a state of vigilance to continually assess their own feeling of personal safety. The literature indicates that people in prison actively and intentionally utilise listening and noise-making in a variety of ways. Prison spaces are often designed to limit or manage visual connection, and groups and individuals within the incarcerated population are kept carefully separated, and their movements within or between facilities strictly controlled. The ability of people in prison to exercise control and influence over the acoustic environment is a source of conflict between individuals and groups. Corrections staff rely on auditory cues to gauge the prevailing tension, or ‘heat’ of the units, and incarcerated individuals take advantage of certain aspects of the building services design to communicate covertly. The intricate dynamics of prison cultures and insights from sensory criminology can readily evade the purview of acousticians.

By leveraging complementary fields, acousticians can more effectively design acoustics which foster pro-social communication while mitigating risks associated with undesirable social dynamics. This approach ensures the acoustic design becomes well-informed and purposeful, yielding benefits for incarcerated individuals and corrections staff.

Unique requirements and context specific insights

There are a large number of stakeholders, inside Governments and through communities, who are interested in shaping the experience of people inside prisons.

Design briefs for prison new-builds and refurbishments often include criteria regulating noise from mechanical plant or break-in, partition performance and reverberation times. However, criteria are often taken (without modification) from non-carceral related standards used for design of residential, education or health care projects. While carceral spaces are used for sleeping, education and health care, the acoustic needs (and wants) of people inside prisons can be significantly different from those of people outside.

Beyond safety concerns, the well-being of prison staff is impacted by the acoustic environment. Noise-induced stress and fatigue can affect job performance and overall job satisfaction which leads to staff retention problems for Corrections agencies.. Prioritising acoustics is an investment in the occupational health and safety of prison staff. But also, acoustic design directly affects the mental well-being of incarcerated people.. Excessive noise levels can contribute to stress, cause anxiety and aggression, and exacerbate mental health issues. Thoughtful acoustics can create a more conducive environment for psychological well-being and contribute to overall mental health support.

Given the scarcity of dedicated design guidelines for prisons, we recognise the necessity of developing context-specific recommendations. Emphasising the importance of consulting end users, our research seeks to mitigate unintended consequences. By prioritising the perspectives of those directly affected, we aim to optimise acoustic environments which will support the existing programs delivered into prisons aimed at reducing rates of recidivism, which is key focus for Governments.

Acoustic design to support existing programs

In the context of prisons, acoustic design can contribute to transforming communication dynamics and alleviating negative social interactions. By focusing on speech intelligibility, strategic reduction of noise levels, and the incorporation of privacy considerations, acoustic design can significantly improve the overall prison environment. Creating distinct zones within the prison and balancing moments of quiet with activity are essential to fostering a more comfortable and secure space, and enhancing the communication between all the people inside the prisoncan contributes to the wellbeing of all individuals. Inclusive design, accommodating the commonly encountered range of context specific needs of the incarcerated cohort such as hearing health problems, traumatic brain injuries and neurodiversities, ensures that the acoustic environment is tailored to the unique challenges and requirements of the prison population. Ultimately, thoughtful acoustic design in prisons can directly promote positive social interactions and support education and rehabilitation efforts.

For further information, please contact James.

Authored by James Boland with reseach in collaboration with Dr Helen Farley, Director of Criminal Justice – Faculty of Law - University of Canterbury.

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