Building a Better Prison

By Chuck Ross, Contributing Writer April 1, 2006

Louis Sullivan most likely wasn’t thinking about correctional facilities when he argued that the form of a building should follow its function, but few other building types point out the wisdom of this school of thought quite as well.

Each facility is designed to meet a specific population’s needs, and every element must be designed to perform—and survive—in a highly demanding environment. Experts say the market for these buildings shows no signs of slowing, and new design strategies and technologies are evolving.

Your tax dollars at work

Though correctional facilities rarely top taxpayers’ agendas, tougher sentencing laws have resulted in more prisoners—and the need for space to house them—across the U.S. Those specializing in correctional-facility design say today’s market is primarily centered at the county and state level, with federal projects being fewer and farther between. And, they say, adding capacity is more of a driver for these clients than replacing existing structures.

“It tends to be somewhat of a cyclical market, because you’re building facilities that tend to last a long time,” says Bob Goble, AICP, a principal with Columbia, S.C.-based Carter Goble Lee. “But there seems to be growth as the country continues to grow. Right now, state prisons seem to be full, and local prisons seem to be full.”

State and local—generally county-level—operations house the vast majority of incarcerated Americans, Goble says, and many are facing overcrowding. Case in point: Virginia, several years ago, had so many surplus prison beds that it was renting out the excess to house other jurisdictions’ prisoners. “Now they need every bed they have,” he says.

Overcrowding also made it necessary for the Shelby County Justice Center in Memphis, Tenn. to expand, adding 256 beds and a new intake center to process more than 200 prisoners per day.

Western states are having similar experiences, according to Dave Troup, assistant director of engineering for HOK’s San Francisco office.

“There still seems to be a lot of activity,” he says of the response to overcrowding. “We’re seeing a lot of county and state facilities in Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona.”

Varying needs

The form-follows-function emphasis in correctional-facility design becomes obvious as one begins to examine the various needs this building type may serve. The category encompasses a range of operations, including city and county jails, state and local prisons, community-based re-entry efforts and, most recently, sex-offender civil-commitment facilities. Each of these serves a distinct population and, as a result, has unique design requirements.

Jails, for example, can be more difficult for designers than prisons, given the wider range in needs. As the entry point to the incarceration process, jails see everyone from petty thieves to violent offenders, so designers need to consider a broad population in their plans, says Bill Porter, senior vice president at Roanoke, Va.-based Hayes, Seay, Mattern & Mattern, Inc. (HSMM).

“A prison generally has a pretty good idea of who they’re dealing with, where a jail is dealing with a potentially more volatile inmate,” he says. “Jails are typically designed for separation, where you’ll have a variety of levels of security.”

Resulting plans might include a mix of open-dormitory areas for lower-risk inmates and single-cell “pods,” or groups of cells, for higher-risk offenders who need to be isolated from other prisoners and their guards, Porter says.

Prisons, on the other hand, are designed with a specific risk level in mind: low, medium or high. Low-risk operations, including transitional facilities built for soon-to-be-released inmates, are often located within a community and may look like a school or other institutional structure. In fact, a minimum-security facility housing nonviolent offenders, the Community Corrections Center in Winchester, Va., includes three classrooms, which are made available to outside community members as well as prisoners in an effort to engage surrounding community members with the center.

Prisons housing high-risk offenders, on the other hand, are usually set in more remote areas, surrounded by razor-wire-topped fencing and multiple layers of security.

“As you go up the security ladder, the first thing is, there are several levels of perimeters,” Porter says, starting with fencing at the exterior, working in to the building exterior, interior corridors, housing units and individual dormitory or cell units. “You can look at it as a series of circles.”

Also integral to these designs are the medical facilities, educational classrooms, administrative offices and even barbers that prisoners, guards and staff all depend on daily.

“Prisons are actually small cities; they have all the elements,” Porter says. “If you need it in a city, you need it in a prison.”

System design challenges

These varying security levels each come with their own implications for M/E/P systems design. Low-security facilities might see requirements similar to those for commercial installations, designed for frequent use but little abuse. Medium-risk plans will feature vandal-resistant fixtures and fittings, similar to those seen in public schools, according to Troup. High-security prisons, in which inmates may be seeking any opportunity to damage equipment, pose the biggest challenge for planners, he says.

“The goal is to keep the devices out of the inmate areas,” he says. “If there’s any kind of valve or damper you need to get to regularly, you want to keep that out of the secure areas. A lot of times it means a VAV system is not very practical, so that pushes the need for constant-volume systems—or multiple constant-volume systems—to get the zoning you need.”

Mechanical smoke-exhaust systems are often required because prisoners don’t have the ability to exit the space quickly, Troup says. And, he adds, smoke sensors are often located within a return or exhaust duct or back in a chase—allowing them to sample the air without making them vulnerable to vandals.

Chases are becoming a common design tactic for protecting mechanical and electrical equipment, while still enabling maintenance access, according to Goble. In single-cell arrangements, common in high-security facilities, these transitways may be placed along the building’s perimeter, so personnel can get to equipment in the chase without ever having to enter the living unit.

Equipment offerings

Chases may protect exterior plumbing and wiring, but within the cells designers have to count on manufacturers to provide fixtures and hardware that can stand up to potential abuse. Goble cites a number of offerings designed for the prison environment.

For example, lighting systems within cells are now designed to be recessed within the concrete ceiling, he says, with lenses crafted from a secure polycarbonate-and-glass laminate. Beds are generally stainless steel—or even concrete—platforms bolted to the wall to reduce contraband-hiding opportunities. Mirrors are polished metal, not glass, toilets have no exposed parts that can be removed and used as weapons and seating may take the form of fixed metal stools rather than movable chairs.

Additionally, Porter notes, cell fixtures and equipment also must be suicide-proof. To address this need, he says, some ceiling-mounted fittings, such as light diffusers and sprinkler heads, are designed to break away from their housings at certain weight loads.

Dorms: A less expensive option

Although single-cell prisons have dominated in the past, prison authorities are now more frequently turning to dormitory-based designs, in which inmates are housed in multi-bed rooms, similar to military barracks. Such plans aren’t an option in high-security settings, but they are a significantly less-expensive choice in low- and medium-security facilities.

“Because of the high cost of construction, we’ve really seen a trend to rely much more on open dormitories than closed cells,” Goble says. “It really costs much more to build a cellhouse of 48 units than a dorm with 64 beds.”

The numbers Goble cites—although they’re general approximations, rather than rules of thumb—are compelling, with single-cell structures costing as much as $100,000 per cell and dorm designs running $20,000 per bed or less, he says. Each unit in a cell-based prison requires its own plumbing and electrical equipment, which is shared in dormitory arrangements. And, as the number of toilets, sinks, light fixtures and other equipment decreases, so does the amount of wiring and piping needed to connect them all.

The dormitory model is still somewhat controversial, however, because it can create hazards for both guards and other prisoners. A series of riots in a Los Angeles jail this past February has been blamed, in part, on authorities who allowed violent inmates to be housed in dormitories instead of locking them into individual cells.

“They can be very dangerous,” Porter says of prison dormitories. “They’re scary places. One thing you can’t argue with is, they’re cheaper to build. They would not be my first choice if I were on staff or an inmate. There’s an awful lot that can go on in there that can’t be detected.”

Others, though, say dormitories can be operated safely if authorities know how to run them. Goble cites the Hillsborough County Jail, located in Tampa, Fla., as a facility he says is leading the way in dormitory-style prisoner housing. He says other states, such as Hawaii, which now is paying to house 2,000 of its inmates in other states’ prisons, are now studying Hillsborough County’s efforts. Success, he says, lies in how well authorities are able to evaluate potential dormitory-setting candidates.

“You have to be careful about how you classify people into dorms vs. cells,” Goble says. “The majority of inmates can do well in dormitory arrangements.”

Breaking into the business

Despite the growing need for prison beds, experts say the market can be a tough one to, pardon the pun, break into. Local officials often don’t have a lot of experience leading these projects, so they count on their design and engineering consultants for guidance. As a result, experience can play a bigger role in the selection process than cost.

“Especially with a city or a county, they don’t build this kind of facility very often,” HOK’s Troup says. “To be able to demonstrate that your company has this kind of experience is important. It’s probably similar to doing hospital design, because so much of the knowledge is learned through experience.”

Design-build has become the most common project-management approach to correctional-facility construction, Porter says. The selection process generally narrows down a broader field to a short list of three firms, with those finalists asked to submit price proposals and firm team lineups. Clients typically look at a combination of qualifications and price when making a final choice, he says.

“Usually the soft elements rank higher than the cost,” Porter says. “They may not pick the cheapest. We’ve seen this in many cases.”

Though design-build projects are often faster and less expensive to complete than more traditional design-bid-build efforts, experts say design-build arrangements can pose hazards to inexperienced municipal officials who haven’t completely thought out a project’s varied implications before construction begins. This is creating new consulting opportunities for firms able to help clients sort out project requirements.

“More and more, we’re seeing that counties and states really do need to define clearly what they want, because any change after you sign that contract will be an extra cost,” Goble says. “When it is a conventional design-bid-build [project], I would say there is much more openness.”

Federal prisons are a completely different story, Goble notes. These projects are managed under the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an agency of the U.S. Justice Dept., and, he says, that organization has turned prison construction into a science.

“In the case of the federal government, that is a well-oiled machine,” Goble says. “Ever since the 1980s, they’ve worked very hard to work with architects to get exactly what they want.”

The agency has developed standardized plans that it simply adapts to meet specific site requirements. Goble says this approach minimizes architectural design requirements, though engineering work can still be substantial.

Locking up sustainability

Regardless of their experience level, officials at all levels of government are increasingly interested in incorporating green design features into their projects, experts say. Meeting the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council is becoming a common criteria project teams must meet. HOK’s Troup says this is especially true in many Western U.S. states and in particular cities and counties throughout the country.

“All of these entities are requiring LEED,” he says. “Generally basic [compliance], but sometimes LEED Silver. LEED can be challenging in a correctional environment; some credits are more or less impossible.”

LEED’s daylighting requirements can be especially problematic, Troup says. Some projects—e.g., the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent, Wash.—employ significant daylighting for some interior space such as dayrooms. However, current prison designs generally limit exterior windows within cells, instead using glass/polycarbonate cell fronts, which open the cell to views of the dayroom. Skylights and clerestories are used to bring natural light into both the dayroom and adjacent cells, but arranging cells so that all have equal light exposure can prove problematic.

Although, as previously noted, constant-volume heating and cooling systems are generally required, Troup says that single-zone variable-air-volume (VAV) approaches can be used to help meet LEED’s energy requirements. To enable maintenance away from secure areas, fan speed is adjusted at the air-handling unit rather than at individual VAV boxes. Troup says he’s also designed systems using energy-saving evaporative coolers instead of traditional chillers for facilities in Oregon’s high desert and in Arizona.

Federal officials are also incorporating environmental design features, experts say. Porter cites a current HSMM federal prison in Mendota, Calif. as one example of this trend. The facility includes a low-security, dormitory-based prison camp as well as a medium-security celled structure. The prison camp is heated and cooled using geothermal heat pumps, a system Porter says works well in dormitory arrangements, because these plans have fewer individual zones. Additionally, both structures include waterless urinals, highly reflective roofs and landscaping requiring little or no additional watering.

Porter says his clients are recognizing that many of these design elements could help government finances as much as the environment.

“It adds little to the construction cost,” he says. “But, if you do it right, it will pay [you] back in a few years.”

Chicago’s Men in Blue Are Going Green

Chicago is almost halfway through an ambitious plan to replace all its aging police stations. In addition to more open designs that reflect the outreach inherent in the city’s community policing strategy, the new buildings illustrate a strong environmental commitment. In fact, says Kevin Curran, vice president of VOA, the Chicago-based architecture firm leading the design effort, the two latest projects to go to bid were recently redesigned to meet LEED Gold certification requirements.

Though all the stations are identical from an architectural perspective—which helps cut training time for officers transferred between districts—these two latest projects will incorporate upgrades to boost their performance above other completed buildings. The most notable of these, Curran says, is the use of a combined heat and power (CHP) plant designed to reduce overall energy costs by 40%.

A 350-kVA natural gas-fired generator will be used to produce electricity during peak periods and to replace one of the three boilers used in current facilities to supply heat and hot water to the stations. Energy recovered from these generator operations will be used to provide building heat. An additional 250-kVA diesel generator will be in place as a backup.

“Between the two generators, they’ll have enough [power] to back up all systems,” Curran says. “Then, if something happens to natural gas supplies, they’ll be able to back up critical systems,” with the diesel generator operating on its own.

Other LEED-related features include the use of low- or no-VOC materials for all surface coatings and finishes, and plans to implement a two-week flush-out plan prior to occupancy to help clear airborne impurities from the buildings. A construction-waste recycling program will require contractors to recycle 75% of all waste. And, like many of Chicago’s municipal buildings, the stations also will feature green roofs.

Technology Behind Bars

New technology tools are helping to boost prison-guard security, regardless of the facility’s housing arrangements. For example, Bob Goble, Carter Goble Lee, Columbia, S.C., notes that locks can now be opened and closed wirelessly, instead of having to be physically connected to a central control panel. In addition to cutting wiring costs, this advance allows guards, who are now working more frequently among inmates rather than in a central observation booth, to control locks remotely using a handheld device. The units are similar to a personal digital assistant (PDA) and are biometrically controlled, so they can only be operated by an assigned user.

Technology, in the form of advanced video-conferencing equipment and software, is also beginning to reduce the need to transport prisoners outside their living areas and to limit the need to allow outsiders into secure areas. For example, the visitor center of Hillsborough County Jail is equipped with cameras attached to monitors, enabling personal visits while keeping family and friends outside the jail’s secure perimeter. Goble notes that officials at a Tucson facility have a similar system in place.

Prisoner rights advocates have questioned this practice, saying videoconferences can’t replace the emotional impact of face-to-face interactions. Goble says many prison experts disagree with these claims.

“What most psychologists say is today’s technology is so good—the level of resolution, etc.—that it doesn’t really make much difference,” he says.

Attorney visits, and even court hearings, are being conducted via video, limiting the need to move prisoners out of secure areas. Even some medical consultations are taking place using cameras and monitors instead of bedside observation.

“There’s a lot of thought as to whether you bring the health care to the prisoner, or vice versa,” says Bill Porter, senior vice president with HSMM, noting that “telemedicine” is now routine in many correctional facilities.