Understanding the impact of prison design on prisoners and prison staff through virtual reality: a multi-method approach

Antonia Sorge, Alice Cancer, Stefania Balzarotti, Davide Ruzzon, Cesare Burdese, Emanuela Saita


Purpose: The prison population is considered to be vulnerable to stress caused by the physical environment. The aim of this study was to evaluate the psychological effects of the prison’s environment on both inmates and staff.

Design: We compared the psychophysiological arousal and self-report measurements of 73 participants (40 prisoners and 33 prison staff) to the prison environment through the exploration of three immersive virtual environments (the dormitory, the prison entrance, and the prison yard).

Findings: There were few physiological activation differences between inmates and prison staff during the task, but significant discrepancies did arise, particularly from self-reported assessments. Compared to prison staff, prisoners demonstrated a greater decrease in finger pulse, indicating a stronger orienting response to virtual environments. While prison staff emphasized the importance of good lighting throughout the environments, prisoners focused their hatred on the furniture of the cells and on the layout and function of the prison yard. Both groups had conflicting emotions towards the virtual environments.

Originality: Our study offers a realistic portrayal of the prison population's perceptions about the setting in which they are engaged in everyday life and activities.

Practical implications: Hence, there are implications for both prison rehabilitation and designing prison renovations that are in line with the psychological needs of inmates and prison staff.


Prison architecture; Prison staff; Prisoners; Virtual reality; Stress; Prison environment; Clinical psychology.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.13129/2282-1619/mjcp-3808


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