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Silence is golden: why noise abatement is important to ensuring a secure prison environment.

One of the least-mentioned aspects of prison design and construction is the issue of noise control. Often, products such as carpeting or acoustical wall panels designed to reduce noise are seen as being "soft on crime," and are deemed politically incorrect or expendable. Operationally, noise simply doesn't rank with other programming or architectural issues.

This line of thinking is misguided. Not only can high noise levels undermine a correctional administrator's ability to operate a safe and secure facility, but noise is ranked by corrections staff as one of the biggest contributors to an unsafe working environment.

Don Gudmanson, warden at Oshkosh Correctional Institution in Oshkosh, Wisc., makes two points about noise and safety:

"Noise levels can be used to mask aggressive inmate behavior in the housing unit. When a flushing toilet drowns out calls for help, the safety of my staff is in danger," Gudmanson says. "Background noise forces staff and inmates to raise their voices just to be heard. Forced, raised voices increase tension, and the ability to maintain a safe environment is undermined.

"Noise [also] can jeopardize the delivery of programming and treatment. Our staff has worked hard to develop effective programming. To get results, we need to get through to inmates, and we can't if we must compete with amplified noise levels in normal unit operations."

Gudmanson's point that noise is a safety and security issue -- and not an architectural finishes issue -- clearly is evident from research conducted in 1995 by the independent Committee on Acoustics in Corrections. The committee -- comprised of correctional administrators, architects and acoustical consultants -- worked closely with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to answer the question: "To what extent are correctional officers, staff and operations impacted by a poor acoustical environment?" Correctional officers and staff from nine housing units at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution were surveyed and four different levels of noise were measured during normal operation of the facility.

"The Wisconsin Department of Corrections Noise Study" concluded that high noise levels contribute significantly to staff concerns about safety, assault and maintaining control of their housing units. In housing units with the highest noise levels, reducing noise was ranked as the single most important strategy for addressing staff concerns about safety and control. Correctional staff also identified noise as a major contributor to stress and tension, more important even than staffing levels, lack of program resources and co-workers' management techniques.

Ironically, noise frequently is not identified by corrections staff as a problem. Many corrections professionals believe it is part of the natural physical environment of a prison and thus, beyond their ability to change.

The Data

Several conditions were ranked by staff on the basis of how they contributed to issues of safety, assault and housing unit control. The most important variable linked to safety, assault and control was inmate behavior.

Conditions felt to affect correctional officers' personal safety -- as ranked on a nine-point scale where a 1 signifies the greatest cause for concern and 9 the least cause for concern -- were clustered fairly closely between 3.7 and 5.9 (See Table I). Inmate behavior leads at 3.7, while inmate space and staffing levels follow at 4.5. Noise is ranked as similar to these other issues at 5.2. It is interesting to note that management techniques of co-workers was ranked least important of all the variables.
Table I
Contributors to Concerns of Safety

Inmate behavior 3.7
Inmate space 4.5
Staffing levels 4.5
Noise 5.2
Design or layout 5.2
Management techniques 5.9

Among situations which staff identified as contributing to tension or stress, inmates with behavior problems and confrontations with inmates ranked as the greatest contributors (see Table II below). (Note that in this part of the study, staff ranked contributors to stress on a scale of 1 to 9, with 9 being the highest score, the greatest contributor to stress). These factors were followed by crowding in the housing unit, threat of assault and gang problems. Interestingly, noise ranked close behind gang problems as a contributor to stress.
Table II
Contributors to Tension or Stress

Inmate behavior 5.8
Confrontations with inmates 5.6
Crowding 5.3
Threat of assault 5.1
Gang problems 5.1
Noise 4.9
Staffing levels 4.8
Lack of program resources 4.7
Meeting inmate demands 4.6
Co-workers' management
techniques 4.4
Mass movements 4.4

What changes did correctional staff believe would best address their safety concerns? The first change would be more staff training. The reduction of blind spots also was ranked highly, as was increased programming or work assignments. Reducing noise levels in the day room came in at 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 9, more important than stricter rules and regulations.


The data taken from Oshkosh was analyzed in four groups, based on the noise levels of each of the eight housing units and the amount of acoustical materials present in the units.

Two findings illustrate the importance of noise to staff. First, there seems to be an association between noise levels and general safety concerns. Even though the staff did not believe there were more behavior problems in the noisier units, they did have greater concerns with inmate behavior and their own safety in the noisier units. This finding seems to support Gudmanson's concern that noise masks aggressive inmate behavior and creates unsafe working conditions.

Secondly, staff members in all housing units ranked reduced noise levels just about as important as increased programming and work assignments in addressing safety concerns. In the noisiest housing units, reducing noise levels is believed to be the most important improvement a facility can make to address concerns of safety, assault and control.

This finding may be the best barometer of how important reduced noise levels are to staff. Clearly, when staff are aware that higher noise levels are not a fixed problem of confinement, and in fact, can be reduced, noise reduction is ranked by the staff in all units about as important as any other improvement aimed at ensuring worker safety. Those staff members working in the housing units with the highest noise levels rate noise abatement above many other potential improvements to their facilities.

Making the Change

What can prison administrators do to control high noise levels? Actually, quite a bit.

Morton Liebowitz, administrator of the Rappahannock Security Center Regional Jail, says, "During my experience as a jail administrator, I've been tasked with overseeing the construction of new correctional facilities.

Frequently, design and materials used to contain noise are dramatically cut back or cut out. This is a mistake. Making correctional facilities quieter as a post-construction after-thought (which normally happens) is difficult and expensive. Don't be tempted to cut costs when dealing with the acoustics of a facility."

In designing a new facility, it's helpful to keep in mind a few simple rules:

* Irregularly shaped rooms are preferable to simple, rectangular spaces.

* Acoustical materials should be distributed between ceiling, wall and floor surfaces.

* For maximum effectiveness, acoustical materials should be at least an inch thick.

* Air space behind acoustical materials helps absorb low-frequency sound, and prevents the room from sounding "boomy."

* Carpeting provides effective sound absorption and helps control impact noise.

* Acoustical materials located near sound sources are more effective than those located at a distance.

* Upholstered furniture offers incidental sound absorption.

* Acoustical treatments do not have to include conventional manufactured products; suspended banners made of a porous fabric with a concealed fiberglass pad can provide effective sound absorption.

The goal of all administrators, in practical, noise-level terms, should be to maintain a level of noise at 65 decibels (dBA) or less. Noise levels higher than 65dBA frequently translate into raised voices and a generally noisy environment. The importance of this goal is evident from the research at Oshkosh, in which survey responses from the two noisier groups of housing units (measured above 65dBA) were compared with the two quieter groups of housing units (measured below 65dBA).

Once noise levels were reduced below 65dBA, staff tended not to consider their unit "too noisy" and said they were less concerned with inmate behavior as it affects their safety.

Practical Guidelines

How do these guidelines translate into specific materials appropriate for a typical day room? There are numerous and varied products which can successfully be applied to a correctional environment. Each material has its own acoustical and security values, as well as its own "appearance" value. Administrators concerned about facilities appearing too soft or bright should consider materials in fiat, dull colors. Battleship gray is a favorite color of many administrators.

As part of the research conducted at Oshkosh, four different levels of acoustical materials were established in a 56-cell, 5,500-square-foot day room so that researchers could hear the different noise levels achieved. Table V illustrates the impact of various acoustical materials on a typical day room.
Table V
Acoustical Materials
Added Cumulatively

Material/Finish Description dBA
All surfaces sound-reflecting 76
Suspended acoustical ceiling
added at center of day room 69
Two-inch metal security
panels added (at perimeter
of ceiling at walkway) 66
Carpet and acoustical wall
panels added 63

Correctional administrators work hard every day to maintain the safety and security of their facilities. As was evident from the study of noise at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution, high noise levels have a significant impact on how corrections professionals view the safety and security of their work environments. When noise levels get above 65dBA, as was the case in four of the eight units reviewed in the study, concerns of safety heighten, and the impact of noise on the staff is far greater than what anecdotal or informal staff communications might indicate. At these higher noise levels, reducing noise is considered as important an improvement to ensuring safety as increased work assignments or programming, generally considered to be the single most effective management tool of any correctional facility. Corrections staff are sending a strong message here about noise. Is anyone listening?
Table III
Changes to Address Safety

More staff training 7.4
Increase programming and/
or work assignments 6.9
Reduce blind spots 7.1
Reduce day room
noise levels 6.5
Stricter rules/regulations 5.9
Table IV
Changes to Address Concerns of Assault, Control and Safety

Change Assault Control Safety
More staff training 7.4 7.0 6.9
Increase programming and/
or work assignments 6.9 6.7 6.5
Reduce day room noise levels 6.5 6.2 6.4
(In housing units with highest
levels of noise) 7.6 7.3 7.4


Rostad, Knut A., W. Meister and Richard Wener. 1996. Wisconsin Department of Corrections Noise Study. Washington, DC: Committee on Acoustics in Corrections. (August).

Knut A. Rostad is president of the Enterprise Prison Institute and managing director of the Committee on Acoustics in Corrections. Leonard R. Witke, AIA, is a staff architect with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Architecture, Construction & Design
Author:Rostad, Knut A.; Witke, Leonard R.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Apr 1, 1997
Previous Article:To build or not to build: aging prisons force states to examine capital projects.
Next Article:Visitation in absentia: new technology allows inmates to receive visitor without leaving cells.

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