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The bad buildings scream – lessons from Don Dale and other failed institutions

To improve on a building like the Don Dale centre, design that properly considers human behaviour needs to take priority for its replacement. Neda Vanovac/AAP

The bad buildings scream – lessons from Don Dale and other failed institutions

It’s just over a year since the Don Dale scandal became public. A youth was shown on ABC 4Corners bound and in a spit mask. Within a few hours, a royal commission was initiated, and within days the Northern Territory centre was to be condemned.

Now the brief is out for a new centre – but word is, it’s “a disgrace”.

An excerpt from the 4Corners report, Australia’s Shame, on July 26 2016.

An obsession with “function” – the patterns and protocols of management and care – dominates the designs of residential institutions that serve unwilling guests, such as prisons, detention centres and mental health facilities. The functional spaces assume people’s behaviour will remain the same regardless of the architecture. And so residential institutions end up as places where the business of managing people should be easy.

But people aren’t easy. When forced into an institutional residential setting, they come with baggage that can’t be checked in at the sally port (the gate).

The clients are products of diverse cultures, they have kin, they may have addictions and special needs. Some will be prone to aggression or at risk of suicide (or both). In Australia, about half have mental illness.


Further reading: Good mental health care in prisons must begin and end in the community


Much of the functional planning is designed to control this diversity and unruliness. But people generally don’t like to be controlled, especially if it means they can’t be with the people they love or contribute meaningfully to society. It’s hardly a surprise that facilities see bursts of violence.

Tougher controls add to pressures

If ever there’s an unplanned event with lasting consequences, the architecture is usually patched to prevent another similar event. This is usually very literal, such as putting in a layer of vandal-proof glass, CCTV, or some other invasive security measure.

These modifications rarely help, because they only intensify resentments and feelings of being controlled. Before too long, another incident is inevitable.

The final blow for a facility is usually when the public hears of an incident – the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and Parkville Youth Justice Centre in Victoria are recent cases in point. Remember, these are places that unnecessarily separate people from their loved ones and everything of importance – is an angry response really a surprise?

When a centre is being shut down, administrators frequently blame architecture: they say “it wasn’t fit for purpose”. Suddenly it’s the building that’s done wrong, not the people or protocols that gradually developed in it.

But the administrators may be right. Architecture can be very manipulative; it can affect our behaviour and the choices we make. So why don’t designers anticipate behavioural problems when they’re designing a facility?

These problems arise because as vulnerability increases, choice decreases. When people are mentally ill, feel they’re oppressed, are emotionally overwrought or physically ill, their brains begin to function differently. Their capacity to choose how to react to any given circumstances is reduced to a set of learned and instinctive behaviours, however inappropriate these are to those circumstances.

In oppressive conditions, peope’s capacity to choose how to react to any given circumstances is greatly reduced, however inappropriate their behaviour might be.

Importantly, this same effect reduces the possibility of behavioural change and reform, which is meant to be the focus of the corrections system. And only this past week, this was revealed to be a serious and costly problem for criminal justice in Australia.


Further reading: The state of imprisonment in Australia: it’s time to take stock


What’s worse is that people with mental illness can become symptomatic in bad environments. Only when people are in a state of robust mental health can they develop new, nuanced responses and adapt well to circumstances.

There is a better way

People who have studied this problem talk about congruency. It’s about “the good fit” between the person, their culture and the place: the physical layout, the things there are to do, the attitudes of staff, etc.

If the clients were all healthy, this wouldn’t be so important, because people can then adapt easily. But in mental health facilities all the clients have mental problems, and a high number in prisons too – whether diagnosed or not.

To provide for clients in residential institutional care, administrators first have to understand that all clients are vulnerable. Even if they’re tattooed and tough and might carry a shank knife; if they’re in a residential institution, they’re vulnerable.

It’s essential to treat humans with dignity. First up, that means that prison should never primarily be a punishment (it’s not meant to be under current United Nations rules either).


Further reading: Prisons policy is turning Australia into the second nation of captives


But beyond just abiding by the rules, it’s essential to provide for a meaningful existence. Different people and different cultures find meaning in different places, and it can be hard to provide for everyone. But that’s no excuse not to try.

Some universal values provide meaning for just about everyone. These can be expressed by making provision for family and for meaningful activity such as gardening, art, music, sport and religious expression.

Other provisions must be geared to local cultures. Te Kauwhata, a secure mental health facility in New Zealand, has places for Maori clients to carve wood, based on the understanding that this cultural activity is important enough that they are equipped with dangerous carving tools.

A prison in the Kimberly provides wide, open spaces that are close to kin, and prisoners have opportunities to personalise their spaces.

Very few clients will be there for life. To maintain the competencies needed in the real world, it’s essential to shift the locus of control from staff to the clients. For this reason, the institution should promote trade in wholesome goods.

People should be encouraged to cook for each other and themselves, to do their own cleaning and to develop workplace and cultural skills such as sports development or learning musical instruments.

Until these basic concepts are routine and the reflexes of management are to look at opportunities to improve wellbeing, rather than making facilities harder and more segregated, social problems will remain at the heart of one scandal after another.

Remember, all buildings speak to us on a psychological level – but the bad ones scream.


Further reading: From expected reoffender to trusted neighbour: why we should rethink our prisons