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Prisons aren’t exactly the quietest of environments. On the other hand, popular media’s depictions of inmates shouting and banging cups against cell bars are just as unrealistic. Keeping decorum in a correctional facility may seem like challenging, but the impact of noise on guards and inmates can be detrimental to overall health. Learn the effects of jail noise on health and behavior and why auditory control should be a top priority.

What Is Noise?

Noise is hard to define due to it’s subjective nature. Typically, it is associated with either loud bursts of sound or continuous sounds of varying levels. Defining a sound as noise depends on many factors:

  • Type of sound and origin
  • Loudness and frequency
  • Duration and variance
  • Information content and relative importance
  • Emotional tolerance level of person hearing the sound
  • Background sound level

Outside of a correctional facility, a weather alert alarm, for example, may not be a welcomed sound, but it may not be unwanted because of the underlying intent to inform people of impending disaster in order to provide time to escape. In contrast, the same sound heard multiple times as part of a neighbor’s party music is more likely to gain an upgrade to “noise.” Inside a prison, noise may come from alarms, yelling, pounding, trash-talk, environmental systems (such as heating and air conditioning), kitchen or other facility equipment, or even outbursts from new inmates who may still be under the influence of drugs, alcohol or other substances.

Particular decibel (dB) levels are often used to define noise by law, but enforcement rarely takes place through precise measurement. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has defined acceptable levels for noise outside of correctional facilities as 40 dB(A) for classrooms, 50 dB(A) for general office areas and 58 dB(A) for light industrial spaces. The American Correctional Association has set noise standards for prison and jail housing units not to exceed 70 dB(A) for daytime hours and 45 dB(A) for nighttime hours. Although regulations may vary by country and setting, long-term exposure to sound above 50 dB(A) can cause serious health risks, such as heart attack and hypertension.

Adverse Health Effects

Prolonged exposure to unwanted sound can cause many health problems and lead to behavioral issues, ranging from single-episode or minimal occurrence to serious health risks leading to death. Health concerns include:

  • Annoyance
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Fatigue
  • Hearing impairment and loss
  • Immune deficiency
  • Hypertension
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated cortisol and adrenaline
  • Headaches
  • Vertigo

None of these health concerns are good for any person regardless of where they reside. But when unwanted sound impacts an inmate’s health, the resulting behavior may be worse due to a limited ability to escape the noise. Increased annoyance combined with elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels produces aggressive behavior, which may create further health problems and noise. Sleep disturbance and fatigue reduce compliance with rules and tolerance of behavior and noise. The more serious health issues lead to an increased spending on medications, health monitoring, and infirmary visits.


Special Concerns for Adolescent Inmates

In correctional facilities housing adolescent offenders, noise may be even more of a problem. With increased hormone levels and fluctuations during the teen and young adult years, noise may cause even more drastic episodes of the health issues previously mentioned. Speech perception continues to develop until the early teen years, so noise exposure in the adolescent inmate population can affect cognitive development as well as physical and mental health, leading to increased behavioral problems.

Behavioral Considerations

Excessive sound levels affect more than just health. The it creates contributes to undesirable and unsafe behavior by inmates. This includes:

  • Increased aggression
  • Increased irritability
  • Decreased compliance and cooperation
  • Difficulty for staff in maintaining control and safety

The longer inmates are exposed to these effects, the more serious that their behavior, safety, and health risks may become.

Solutions for Noise Control

However, even with all these included risk-factors, complete silence may not be the answer. There are solutions to help control sound in correctional facilities. For new facilities, implementing noise-reducing design and construction processes include:

  • Incorporating acoustic materials at least an inch thick
  • Designing irregularly shaped rooms
  • Leaving air space behind acoustic materials to absorb sound

But for older facilities, sound may need to be reduced by:

  • Grafting fabric to furniture
  • Adding carpet to high-traffic areas
  • Adding acoustic materials to ceilings, walls and near other sources of sound

Budgets are often stretched, but the savings in medical supplies, stress reduction and overall environmental and attitude changes will outweigh the costs of noise-reducing materials. Reducing the amount of noise in correctional facilities will not only contribute to healthier inmates and an increased ability to deal with re-entry to society, but it will also relieve the stress of correctional staff in maintaining a safe and controlled environment.