Doin’ Time

Monolithic. Blocky. Cold. These are all words that jump to mind when one thinks of prisons and jails. And most people are probably guilty of categorizing these facilities as relatively simple structures—concrete or stone boxes. But in reality, prisons and jails are much more than guard towers and razor wire.

By Jim Crockett, Editor-in-Chief May 1, 2003

Monolithic. Blocky. Cold. These are all words that jump to mind when one thinks of prisons and jails. And most people are probably guilty of categorizing these facilities as relatively simple structures—concrete or stone boxes. But in reality, prisons and jails are much more than guard towers and razor wire.

“Other than a hospital, there’s a heck of a lot of coordination that needs to take place because of functionality,” says Jeff Geiger with Arnold & O’Sheridan, Madison, Wis. “There needs to be safety for both the inmates and the staff.”

An electrical engineer, Geiger has been designing prisons for the better part of 20 years. He and his firm were involved with the recent construction of Wisconsin’s newest Supermax prison in Boscobel, a project of such complexity that it won the firm a 2001 Integrator Award ( CSE 12/01 p. 38 ).

“Integrated systems are a big part of these jobs,” he says, pointing to the need for card access and motorized doors—and for every door, a camera to monitor each alarm.

“These structures are also extremely unforgiving,” says Dave Troup, P.E., vice president and director of mechanical engineering with the San Francisco office of HOK. “They’re poured-in-place concrete or precast concrete, so there’s no room for misalignment. You also have to account for security barriers in the penetrations, and there’s just a tremendous amount of conduit for power and security that can’t be hidden in a false ceiling,” he says.

Of course, the obvious difference between a correctional facility and other building types is dealing with inhabitants actively trying to damage the building’s systems. “Prisoners are extremely ingenious on figuring ways to screw things up,” says Troup.

For example, even if an institutional-grade sprinkler head is installed, inmates are oftentimes able to figure ways to activate them and “start a party.” As a result, he says, designers need to consider other options, such as a dry vs. wet system, so the facility staff has time to react. Or, another possibility is coupling sprinkler activation with smoke detection. The challenge then becomes locating the detector in a place the prisoner can’t get at (see “Fire in the Jailhouse,” p. 48).

Troup’s HOK colleague, Guy Despatis, P.E., a senior vice president and director of engineering, points out that smoke control is another huge issue, particularly because these facilities are inhabited 24/7. “The thing you have to remember is that if there is a fire, you can’t just let the prisoners out on the street.”

Therefore, these facilities must be compartmentalized and pressurized so inmates can be evacuated to an isolated safe zone while smoke is evacuated in the occupied area. Zones, in general, Despatis adds, are an important factor that correctional designers must be cognizant of for segregating different types of offenders—and gangs—so that internal violence can be minimized.

Of course, the type of correctional facility also makes a big design difference. Superlatives such as “blocky” and “cold” might be true of the bigger state and federal penitentiaries located in rural areas, but keep in mind that more often, correctional facilities are constructed in the heart of urban areas. Monolithic and shrouded in barbwire are simply unacceptable conditions to many mayors, and rightly so.

“Most detention facilities need to be a good neighbor,” says Chuck Oraftik, also a senior vice president in HOK’s San Francisco office. “That means functionally as well as visually.” He explains that many of these facilities are close to courts and related justice agencies, meaning some may have to be built right up to the sidewalk.

“They’re a lot more difficult,” adds Despatis, citing height regulations and other constraints. “With [Federal] Bureau [of Prisons] jobs, you tend to have lots of land, and even a site package as to layout the building relationships. But on the county level, they’re more congested and, frankly, you have to fit stuff to the surroundings.”

While HOK is an A/E, in many cases, they tend to work with a local designer as the architect of record. But having such architectural resources is an invaluable asset, according to Geiger. “There are just so many aspects you need to be aware of in designing a jail,” he says. “I can tell how good an [architectural] design is by the number of cameras I have to install.”

In other words, he says, there’s still no substitute for direct “eyeball” supervision in these facilities, and experienced architects account for this with good sightlines.

Experience is definitely a good thing, and that applies to the owner as well, according to Despatis. Take the Bureau of Prisons. Although the agency has definitively moved to design-build as its preferred method of delivery, it still has a stack of programmatic requirements almost 4 ft. high. And Despatis says it’s surprising how much FBOP requires for just a request for proposal. “They’re probably the only organization I’m aware of that has a system just to request RFPs.”

That, however, is a good thing, he says, because it helps the designer to focus. On the other side of the spectrum, Despatis says, the design firm really has to lead, because in many cases, it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for many counties, whose staff have no experience with advance justice facility design, planning and technology. And that can be challenging, according to Troup, as county operators often have a long wish list that’s in direct conflict with the budget. At the same time, Geiger emphasizes, you can’t minimize the importance of interfacing with operating staff. “These buildings are just getting more and more sophisticated. And you have to take into account maintenance and access so you minimize staff going into secured areas.”

State of the industry

Before delving further into prison-specific systems and technology strategies, a review of the state of the market is in order.

In the 1980s, the prison market was at its peak. And even just a couple years ago, the sector was still relatively booming, as the need for new prisons—be it because of stricter sentencing guidelines, the war on drugs or court-ordered mandates to add new cells—forced local, state and federal agencies to build or expand their correctional facilities.

In fact, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, in 2001, federal prisons were 31% above their rated capacities, and state prisons were operating anywhere from 1% to 16% above capacity.

“Business” has been trailing off from those high-water years, says Bill Porter, P.E., senior vice president with Roanoke, Va.-based HSM&M, but activity is still solid. His firm, which has delivered a number of correctional facilities ranging from the county to state to federal level, is currently working on a 1,000-bed penitentiary for the FBOP in Tucson, Ariz., and a pair of 1,200-bed “FCIs”—federal correctional institutes—in South Carolina.

The good or bad news, depending on how you look at it, is that Porter predicts a rebound in prison construction within the next four years. “The Commonwealth of Virginia, right now, has an excess of beds, but there’s a big wave of kids coming that will be entering the prime crime-producing years in the next three to four years, so we’ll have to pick up the slack.”

Geiger agrees with that assessment. “There was a decline in the prison incarceration rate for the last couple of years, but reports are showing increases, especially among juveniles and women,” says the engineer.

Most existing correctional facilities, however, are not geared for this population. As a result, Geiger says it’s led to a lot more construction activity for this group, especially at the county level.

Besides the federal projects noted above, HSM&M is adding a significant expansion to a federal facility in Marion, Ill.—the aging maximum-security prison that replaced Alcatraz. In fact, expansion and renovation are really at the core of correctional construction today.

“The coasts have done a lot over the past few years, but the Midwest really needs to catch up,” says Geiger.

Construction activity reports from Reed Construction Data (RCD), Atlanta, certainly bears this out. In a search of correctional projects out for bid or let for bid this year, RCD observes that there are nearly 100 projects of at least $5 million in the hopper with 20 valued at more than $20 million, and the top five all at more than $100 million.

Recently released statistics from the U.S. Dept. of Justice also support a need to maintain or upgrade facilities. As of midyear 2002, DOJ reports the nation’s prisons and jails were incarcerating a recordbreaking number of inmates—more than 2 million prisoners—with two-thirds of those inmates being held in state and federal facilities. During the 12-month period ending June 30, 2002, the number under state jurisdiction rose by 0.9%, and those under federal custody rose by 5.8%. The number of inmates in custody in local jails rose by 34,235.

But while the demand is there, the money is not in many cases. “There’s nothing at the state level right now,” assesses Geiger of the funding landscape. And now that shortage is trickling down to the county level. But counties are getting creative and taking advantage of certain opportunities. In Virginia, for example, Porter says three counties are banding together to construct a new facility, in part, because the commonwealth will match 50 cents for every dollar each county ponies up.

In Wisconsin, Geiger notes local governments are also looking to be more proactive. “Given the current interest rates, the counties want to do something about it,” he says.

HOK’s Oraftik certainly feels the pain of these local governments and offers the hope that costs can be pared back without jeopardizing security, operational efficiency or neighborhood compatability. As an example, he points to a project HOK did for Pierce County that he proudly asserts is “very cost effective, functionally advanced and well received by its neighbors.”

The job was a hybrid expansion and renovation that added 1,008 beds to the existing 772-bed facility, as well as a new kitchen, laundry and an intake/release unit. Initially, the county wanted a more elaborate facility with all single cells and new courtrooms. The latter were very quickly dropped due to their cost; and instead of single cells, HOK suggested that the county go with the concept of building dormitory-style housing, since they already had mostly single cells—a move that dropped the cost per bed by about $23,000.

“Dorms are just inherently less expensive—fewer doors, walls, locks, toilets, etc.—and in this case, the total area per bed is extremely space efficient,” says Oraftik.

Furthermore, there’s no fat. He explains designers must observe minimum standards set by the American Correctional Association, but minimum is the key word. “We made sure we met every standard, but did not exceed them at all,” says Oraftik. “It’s kind of like putting your project on a low fat, low carb, low cal diet.”

Being so frugal is obviously a little unusual for most projects, but Troup points out they’re working in an unusual situation. “These are all really tight-budget jobs to begin with, but you have to remember the public would prefer to spend its money on things other than jails.”

At the same time, he’s proud to say, they’ve delivered some quality exteriors and spaces. “To pull off something that looks good is really saying something,” says the engineer.

In fact, looking at some interiors of these projects, it’s hard to believe these are indeed correctional institutions—take HOK’s Snake River County detention facility in Oregon, pictured above. The dayroom looks like it could be part of a college library or student union.

That’s just taking advantage of one’s circumstances, Oraftik explains. It’s often necessary, especially in urban environments, to make these buildings blend in so they’re not immediately recognizable as jails. The strategy HOK employed on such a project for King County near Seattle was to design the entire facility to face inward upon itself. Housing units are oriented around a central recreation yard that is, in effect, an internal light well. Cell windows face the dayroom, which in turn, has huge two-story window walls facing the yard. And with all inmate windows facing inward toward the yard, no inmate-accessible windows need be placed in exterior walls.

This approach, Oraftik says, improves lighting conditions for both staff and inmates; eliminates the chance for prisoners to escape out of windows; and reduces the opportunities for getting contraband inside, he says.

In fact, Oraftik notes that property values in the area around the facility actually increased.

Another cost-saving/functional improvement strategy that Geiger has used to help many of his clients is changing the way he bids out certain technology packages. Digital video recorders, he says, have become a hot retrofit technology, as they’re worlds faster for searching. The problem is that the technology is advancing so quickly that it’s outdated even within two years. As a result, Geiger includes a provision for the technology in his specs, but doesn’t bid it out until the bulk of the structure is complete, at least for new construction.

“It’s worked well,” he says. “And besides as the technology is getting better, the costs keep going down.”

Puzzle lovers

Despite the gloomy nature of these jobs, designers enjoy working on such projects. “Prisons are actually fun to work on,” says Despatis. “It’s really like doing a big puzzle,” adds Troup. And, Porter adds, they’re applying their security experience to new markets, notably schools and offices. So without doubt, some “good” is coming out these seemingly “bad” situations.

Geiger, however, warns firms interested in the sector to approach it carefully. “It really is a big investment for the design firms taking on these jobs. It may take five years for a project to finally come to fruition.”

The Changing Face of Prisons

When it comes to the M/E/P and controls technology in prisons today, it’s hard to improve, notes Bill Geiger, a prisons designer with Arnold & O’Sheridan, Madison, Wis., as the industry has pretty much hit the state of the art.

“We’re still using PLCs for the control environment, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.”

But what has changed, according to Bill Porter, a senior vice president with HSM&M, Roanoke, Va., is an emphasis on system survivability—not just vs. inmate vandalism, but against outside agents, such as terrorism. For example, if something happens—a fire or major power outage—Porter says inmates can’t just be turned loose. So to avoid panic or riot-like situations in moving inmates to safer conditions, it is absolutely essential that power and lighting be maintained. “And we’re not just talking about emergency power, but multiple loops of power. The same goes for water—you need to have a separate water supply that can last seven to 14 days,” says the engineer.

Future Trends: Modular and Green

Despite their simple, blockly appearances, prisons and jails are becoming even more sophisticated as time marches on. And other industry issues, such as sustainable design, are also taking root in these concrete behemoths. For example, Roanoke, Va.-based HSM&M has specified waterless urinals for a Federal Bureau of Prisons project in Tucson, Ariz. Cogeneration and thermal storage are also becoming more common, says Bill Porter, a senior vice president with the firm. In fact, they’re even complying with Dark Sky ordinances. “So you’ll probably see an end to tall-mast lighting,” says Porter.

Other issues Porter believes will come into play down the road include seismic design and a need to employ more modular construction—a trend already in place with the use of prefabricated concrete cells. Of course, more compact, integrated and electronic systems will also come to bear. He says this, of course, means engineers will have to brush up on their knowledge of grounding and other means of protecting electrical systems.