Inspired by Unity Center, county jail makes changes
Sgt. Amie Banta wanted to find a more compassionate and humane way to handle people who were coping with mental health issues while in custody with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.
“I was looking for a creative solution to help stabilize the population, to elicit a more positive response from inmates and to help with the natural feelings of isolation that occur when people are incarcerated,” said Banta.
“We can’t take the doors off and we can’t compromise the safety and security of the facility, but there are some physical changes that we can make to the design of the jail to help the inmates feel like they are in a more therapeutic, less institutionalized environment.”
Banta turned to Unity Center for Behavioral Health for inspiration to redesign a new way of housing inmates. Her project focused on changes that could be made to reduce inmate stress, including providing music, a space for creative expression, calming paint colors and art panels displayed throughout the acute behavioral health–unit all in an attempt to create a calm, peaceful physical space for inmates.
When community leaders and clinicians gathered together to design Unity Center, they were particularly mindful of elements that would contribute to improved mental health outcomes such as soft paint colors, natural light, reduced noise levels, adequately-sized bathrooms, using a variety of soft lighting options and access to nature and the outdoors–intentionally moving away from an institutional feel common in many psychiatric hospitals. One of the environmental aspects visitors notice about Unity is the use of art on the walls that reflect natural landscapes, providing the calming influence of nature.
As a part of her design project, Amie recommended providing inmates with the opportunity to express their artistic side. With the redesign, the jail provided a creative writing space for inmates by spraying a chalkboard-like paint on the walls that would then turn an ordinary brick wall into a chalkboard. The chalkboard surface was so successful in giving people a creative outlet, that the Multnomah County Correctional Department decided to provide wall-based chalkboard surfaces in every cell on the behavioral health unit at the Multnomah County jail in downtown Portland.
“It was really impressive to see the chalkboards the Sheriff’s Department decided to use,” said Juliana Wallace, director of services for Unity Center. “In my experience giving people multiple ways to express themselves while they are in a mental health crisis, whether that is talking to staff or whether it's drawing feelings and thoughts on a chalkboard, it’s an innovative way to let people show who they are and share those messages with others.”
The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office is setting a positive example for other law enforcement organizations to reimagine how they care for people with mental health issues. At Unity Center, leaders say they couldn’t be happier to partner with MCSO and our other law enforcement community partners across the city to change the conversation about how collectively, we care for people suffering from a mental health crisis.
As a part of the requirements to move from officer to sergeant, Banta completed her operational project this August and the design changes she recommended, were implemented in the fall for the 10-unit detention center managed by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department.
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