Behind Bars

With stringent security requirements and many resources at their disposal, Madison, Wis.-based Arnold & O'Sheridan made integration and technology an essential part of the design for the new Supermax maximum-security prison in Boscobel, Wis.The end result—a technologically-savvy, on-time, on-budget performance by the building team—has earned the firm a 2001 Consulting-Spec...

By Barbara Horwitz, Associate Editor December 1, 2001

With stringent security requirements and many resources at their disposal, Madison, Wis.-based Arnold & O’Sheridan made integration and technology an essential part of the design for the new Supermax maximum-security prison in Boscobel, Wis.

The end result—a technologically-savvy, on-time, on-budget performance by the building team—has earned the firm a 2001 Consulting-Specifying Engineer Integrator Award in the category of institutional construction.

One step ahead

Because the typical Supermax resident is no small-time criminal, the design team was mandated by the State of Wisconsin’s Division of Facilities Development (DFD) to incorporate strict program measures, including:

  • No keys within the prison cell units.

  • A monitoring system to observe all interactions between officers and inmates.

  • Highly maintainable building systems that can be repaired and adjusted with minimum exposure to the prisoners.

The state also desired a highly collaborative effort. Consequently, the engineers and architects were required to sit down with the warden and state correctional facility officers for an intensive series of brainstorming meetings.

“When prisoners have 24 hours a day to sit and think, that’s lots of time to figure out how to be disruptive,” explains Jeffrey R. Geiger, the electrical engineer on the job.

To stay ahead of the game, the team attempted to think like a prisoner, literally fleshing out as many scenarios of unruly behavior as possible. These scenarios could then be countered with design solutions.

“It was a highly unusual and complex process, but we were successful because of the engineers’ cooperation and team spirit,” states Dan Stephen, a DFD project manager, who directed the design and construction of the prison.

The project’s time frame certainly attests to that. Despite the fact that initial planning meetings only took place every other week for almost three months, for the entire 212,000-sq.-ft. project, design took just nine months, and an additional 18 months for construction.

Sound security

Addressing the “no key” rule, Arnold & O’Sheridan engineers came up with the concept of unlocking all cell doors from a central control station.

For example, when an officer needs to escort a prisoner from a cell, the guard approaches the door and either activates a switch or pushes a call button. A security officer from central control then turns on a camera and intercom mounted next to the door to verify, both visually and auditorily, the identity of the requesting officer. Only then does the central control officer open the cell door.

Tight security measures were also put in place for general access to the facility. Firstly, all visitors must be registered in the Supermax database. Then, to gain entry, says Geiger, the individual must pass through three layers of verification—a biometric hand scan, PIN number entry and confirmation by a digital photograph.

With more than 400 miles of cable and 165 cameras initially posted around the perimeter, at the gatehouse and in each cell corridor, the system involved quite a bit of integration.

To tie it all together, the engineers designed an electronic system with motion-sensing cameras, specially configured programmable logic controllers and a custom configured software control system.

Because ongoing maintenance was a big concern, the team decided to go through a third-party vendor.

“Instead of designing a proprietary system, new parts can be ordered through the manufacturer, which makes it much easier to maintain the system,” Geiger explains.

The choice to customize the control system also gave the engineers the freedom to reprogram the appearance of the icons and information on the monitoring screens.

As a matter of fact, once the system was up and running, Supermax Warden Jerry Berge had the team change the screen orientation to further customize the system for his officers’ use.

With a very forward-looking approach, the team also made the telecommunications infrastructure flexible enough to accommodate technologies to be added on later, such as video conferencing to enable an inmate to interact with a doctor or lawyer without having to be brought out of the cell.

Mechanical corridor

The remaining major program requirement—the ability to perform building system maintenance without exposure to the inmates—was resolved by completely isolating the systems. A sealed off mechanical corridor runs the length of the prison cell rows, so a technician who needs to make repairs can do so unbeknownst to the prisoners, thereby minimizing opportunities for inmates to cause trouble, explains Scot N. Whitney, P.E., the lead mechanical engineer on the project.

Inside the 7-ft. by 13-ft. corridor, set up as a long aisle, is the HVAC ductwork, plumbing, exhaust grilles, smoke detectors and ports for the video cameras. To help illuminate the space, the corridor’s ceiling was designed with skylights, which also directs natural light to the cells.

Another key to pulling off a successful design was close collaboration between Arnold & O’Sheridan engineers and the architectural firms Potter Lawson, Madison, Wis. and Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum, St. Louis.

“This prison wasn’t architecture first and then force in the M/E,” notes Potter Lawson’s Warren Bauer. “M/E was a critical component of the design and even drove the design in several instances, such as the mechanical corridor.”

Even though the architecture more than accommodated the corridors, the space configurations were rather unique, making coordination between the mechanical and electrical engineers critical.

“The area is so tight that if any piece of equipment wasn’t properly located, nothing would have worked,” states Geiger.

In addition to security and space challenges, Supermax also required a unique solution from a ventilation standpoint. Typical of all prisons, Supermax’s large volume of toilet equipment prevented the possibility of recirculating air. Therefore, more energy is required, particularly in the winter, to bring in lots of cold Wisconsin air and heat it. By designing a heat-recovery system for the prison, A&O’s engineers were able to save Supermax operators a substantial amount of energy.

“Energy is extracted from the air before it is exhausted and then that energy is reintroduced to heat the outside air coming in,” explains Whitney. “We never used a heat recovery system to the extent that we used it here and it’s really saving Supermax a lot of money as far as energy goes.”

Whitney notes that the first cost for a heat-recovery system is higher, but it was the owner’s prerogative to approach the design with long-term solutions.

“It’s not that money wasn’t an issue, but the overriding priority was finding the best way to do things,” says Geiger.

Along those same lines, the engineers chose higher quality stainless steel supply air grilles, which were installed in each cell.

Another tricky design challenge involved the smoke control system. A careful balance had to be achieved between guarding the prisoners and not compromising their life safety in the event of a fire. The solution involved dividing the facility into 60 zones. This way, prisoners may not have to be evacuated from the secured prison if the fire is successfully contained and extinguished. With the ability to control the pressure in each zone, building operators can contain smoke by creating positive and negative pressure relationships.

This control is key as it is standard for prisons not to include sprinklers inside the cells to prevent tampering. To offset the lack of sprinklers, extra fire-hose cabinets were located in the corridor to cover the area, according to Bauer.

Likewise, all equipment installed inside the prison cells was kept to an absolute minimum, again eliminating opportunities for the prisoners to be disruptive. Each prison cell contains a light switch, light fixture, intercom, non-flammable mattress, bed, toilet, sink and showerhead. The light switch is enclosed in an industrial-strength cover guard and the fixture lies behind 12-gauge, 3/8-in. tempered glass. In addition, each room has a night light so that the prisoners can be monitored 24 hours a day.

A job well done

When all was said and done, the State of Wisconsin was extremely pleased with how well all the building systems functioned once they were up and running.

“Arnold & O’Sheridan turned over a top-notch building,” claims Warden Berge.

Last year, the Supermax project earned recognition from the Wisconsin Association of Consulting Engineers for superior systems integration, in addition to receiving international fame.

“The facility is a good model for other jurisdictions and we’ve had people from all over the world come to see, firsthand, what the operation is like,” notes Warden Berge. “A lot of people have been impressed by its uniqueness and the efficiency of how it operates.”

Overall, Stephan spells out the bottom line: “Usually, three years down the road, new facilities are still tweaking problems. The Supermax project was the most complete project that I have ever seen.”

Tale of the Tape

Owner: State of Wisconsin

Project: Supermax prison

Location: Boscobel, Wis.

Program: Maximum-security prison, designed to house 500 criminals

Size: 212,000 square feet

Total Cost: $44 million

Mechanical/Electrical/Security Engineer: Arnold & O’Sheridan, Inc., Madison, Wis.

Plumbing/Fire/Life-Safety Engineer: PSJ Engineering, Milwaukee

Lead Architect: Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, St. Louis

Architect: Potter Lawson, Madison, Wis.

Contractor: Kraemer Brothers, LLC, Plain, Wis.

Experience is Key

When embarking upon the design and construction of the most technologically advanced, complex facility ever endeavored by the State of Wisconsin’s Division of Facilities Development (DFD), state officials were extremely interested in recruiting engineers with the most expertise.

“We had never attempted anything like this before, so we really needed to rely on experts,” explains Jerry Berge, warden of the newly constructed Supermax maximum-security prison facility in Boscobel, Wis.

Consequently, Arnold & O’Sheridan, Madison, Wis., a winner of this year’s Consulting-Specifying Engineer ‘s Integrator Award in the institutional category, was recruited for the job. “The engineers had long-standing experience in the field of corrections, having worked with different states and different institutions, and could provide a design solution in an expeditious manner,” explains Dan Stephen, a DFD project manager.

Not only were the state agency and the warden extremely pleased with the level of expertise and experience Arnold & O’Sheridan brought to the project, but the engineers enjoyed the design challenge as well.

“You don’t get to design one of these every day,” notes Arnold & O’Sheridan electrical engineer Jeffrey R. Geiger. “It’s fun because it’s unique and you get to try new things such as integrating things that were kind of out of the ordinary.”

Maximum-Security Power

Due to the critical nature of the Supermax maximum-security prison in Boscobel, Wis., redundancy was integrated into the electrical infrastructure.

Not only is the entire facility supported by backup power, but Supermax operators also have the ability to generate additional power and sell it back to the local utility, notes the project’s electrical engineer, Jeffrey Geiger, Arnold & O’Sheridan, Madison, Wis.

With two 750-kW generators, the equipment can easily handle the prison’s average load of 550 kW if the utility needs to take Supermax off the grid. In exchange for utility incentives funding a portion of the generation equipment, Supermax is contracted to sell back up to 600 kW based upon need.

In addition to the generators, critical systems are also backed up by uninterruptible power supplies.