In the wake of convicted murderer Danelo Cavalcante’s escape from the Chester County Prison, angry and fearful residents have rightly called for reforms to prevent future escapes.
Unfortunately, in their rush to reassure the community, county officials are pursuing expensive, misguided solutions that will degrade the physical and mental health of incarcerated people: they plan to completely enclose exercise yards with a solid roof, effectively depriving them access to fresh, open air and sunlight.
Getting rid of outdoor exercise not only harms incarcerated people, but fails to address the shortage of corrections officers that has made jails throughout Pennsylvania unsafe for people both inside and outside of the walls.
Prison Board approves design that would deny access to open air
At a meeting of the Chester County Prison Board last week, the board approved a design concept that would convert all eight of the jail’s outdoor exercise yards into indoor facilities. It calls for an 18-foot outer wall of solid masonry to replace the current chain-link fence and a solid roof over the open sky. The only opening that would admit air and natural light from outside would be a narrow “ribbon” of windows running along the top of the wall.
(Caption: Illustration of the redesigned exercise yards from a TranSystems presentation at the Chester County Prison Board meeting)
The Prison Board chose the design from among three concepts presented by TranSystems, the firm hired by the county to redesign the exercise yards. The other two concepts were open-air designs that would have covered the yards with a cage-like wire structure that left it exposed to the elements.
In the discussions, TransSystems cited but seemed to ignore, the American Correctional Association’s standards for exercise yards, which state that "[facilities should have] both outdoor and covered/enclosed exercise areas for general population inmates are provided ... in sufficient number to ensure that each inmate is offered at least one hour of access daily. Use of outdoor areas is preferred, but covered/enclosed areas must be available for use in inclement weather."
Lack of outdoor time would exacerbate mental health issues
While there may be related structural renovations that will bolster security, such as redesigning the short corridor that incarcerated people have been able to scale, renovations should not come at the expense of largely eliminating access to the sky and fresh air.
Research shows that spending time outdoors can reduce anxiety and help people cope with stressors, and those benefits may be especially important for incarcerated people, says Richard Wener, an environmental psychologist at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.
“On the one hand, you experience so many stresses in a prison, many more than on average outside of containment,” says Wener, who has studied the way that correctional architecture affects the behavior of people who live and work in correctional facilities for nearly fifty years. “On the other hand, you have fewer of the things we do to reduce stress.” Being near nature is one benefit of outdoor yards that helps people cope with the stress of incarceration, Wener says.
“Even just seeing the blue sky and clouds can be important,” he says.
Outdoor access also provides exposure to natural light that helps regulate sleep. Indoor lighting typically only generates about one-tenth of the brightness that people experience outdoors, Wener says.
He expects that eliminating outdoor access in a jail would exacerbate mental health problems that have reached epidemic proportions in jails. It could even increase aggression, he says.
“It's more likely that not only people are going to be upset and anxious and depressed, but may be more likely to act out,” Wener says.
Focus on renovations discounts staffing issues
The proposed changes to the exercise yard at Chester County Prison would cost an estimated $2.5 to $3.5 million, money that could be used to bolster staffing. In the Prison Society’s most recent survey of county jails, the prison reported that more than 1 out of 4 staff positions were unfilled. When Cavalcante escaped, there were no corrections officers supervising the exercise yard, and the sole guard posted in the watchtower did not see him scale the outer fence.
Taking a holistic approach to security and safety
As Chester County continues to discuss how best to improve security and safety at its jail, the Prison Society is grateful to be a valued partner. The mental and physical health of people confined to the Chester County Prison and working in the Chester County Prison needs to be as much a part of the solution, as eliminating physical design flaws at the facility.