There’s a reason why America’s older jail houses are evolving into trendy restaurants, retail stores and apartments. For most of these cement block facilities, their stint doing hard time as a house of corrections has simply expired. Where private homeowners can easily knock out a wall here for an en suite bath (and we see this sort of thing on HGTV all the time) it’s a little different when a jail structure no longer adequately serves its residents. Given cement’s unmovable nature, it’s typically easier to build new than to renovate the old.
In many cases this type of structure must start from scratch if it is to meet all of the pertinent codes and requirements. Without a doubt the planning, construction and operation of such a complex facility can be costly. But when done right, the process can also save considerable time and resources in the long run.
Architect Lawrence Goldberg, of Goldberg Group Architects, says there’s good reason why pre-1970s jails aren’t getting renovated, but rather rebuilt: Building codes, state regulation and American Correction Association (ACA) standards are so different now than they were in the past. “Because of that, a lot of what happens is these 24 to 27-bed jails that are already too small really become 12 or 16-bed jails because of the reallocation of required square footage.”
The ACA’s website states, “Secure facilities such as jails…must operate effectively as self-contained communities in which all necessary goods and services are provided in a safe, secure and controlled manner. ACA standards relating to safety require adherence to all federal, state, and local fire and safety codes; emergency planning and preparation; and the provision of related training and materials for staff and inmates. Security standards mandate inspections and training of all firearms and armed officers; visitor and staff searches and tracking procedures; and inmate counting and tracking procedures.”
Mark Burns, jail administrator at the Muskegon County Adult Detention Center in Muskegon, Michigan, says their new facility was a long time in coming. The original mid-1950s, linear design jail that housed just over 150 people was adequate…for a time. Then came some add-ons in the Seventies, followed by even more add-ons fifteen years ago. The hodgepodge renovations made for tight quarters, and a host of corridors and spaces that no longer made sense.
“The bed space got bigger but the infrastructure never did and that was difficult,” says Burns. “... our laundry was too small; our kitchen was too small and besides that it was on the third floor, which doesn’t help. You had to haul food up on the elevator.”
Awkward layouts and limited bed size are common markings of older jails. The problem is not that they are dated, but that with each structural compromise they become less secure.
Sheriff Harold L. Jones of Copiah County, Mississippi, could relate. They had reached a point where doors didn’t work; they had no female holding cells; they needed upgrades to electrical and plumbing.
“The jail was ill built when it was built back in the Seventies and we had just outgrown it,” says Jones.
The company Benchmark Construction out of Madison, Miss. was building new jails in an adjoining county. “Every six months we had a mini convention. I would go to their booth and see what progress they had made. And when they got to the final phase of it... I went over and looked at it. I liked what I saw. I took my supervisor over there and we built one identical to it,” says Jones.
They’ve been in the new jail for six months now. He says the builders incorporated new ideas and technology—cameras, computers to open and close doors, pods rather than separate cells and video visitation. Copiah County has doubled its bed size from 53 to 106 and can readily adapt that to about 150.
Hallmarks of a modern jail
Inefficiencies in design breed inefficiencies in operation. A number of detention centers could use more square footage, sure, but they could also do well to get a handle on modern needs and possibilities. Some common features and upgrades that we’re seeing in newly built jails enhance safety for staff and inmates, address a changing population landscape, and reduce risky movements like prisoner transfers. Finally, in some places concrete is out…and more versatile materials are in.
Probably one of the biggest game changers in how jails function today is the increased use of video arraignment and visitation. “These are armored screens mounted on the wall of each day room [for] visitation. Not only can you link up with someone in the lobby or alcove, but if it’s arranged through an Internet provider then someone, for a cost, can be in their own living room visiting with their prisoner loved one. Or City Hall, the local PD or library can talk to the prisoner of their choice,” says Goldberg. The trend not only eliminates the need for the old phone booth; it connects prisoners—safely—with nearly anyone on the outside.
Muskegon County Jail Administrator Burns and his colleagues enlisted the help of Goldberg’s company and Granger Construction of Lansing, Michigan to lead them through a project that was sure to have a lot of upgrades. The old place had little to no security electronics. Thus he says the video visitation component will be a big change: “We’re essentially doing almost 400 visits every week. Through video visitation we’re hoping to free up staff time and do a better job with the classification of inmates and inmate management,” says Burns.
Making room for wellness
The new Muskegon County Adult Correction Center will also have combined medical cells with booking access on one side. “Medical triage is a significant factor of importance to us; we’re dedicated to making sure we can treat our population well and take care of them,” says Burns.
Enhanced medical triage units are becoming quite common. For example, in October of last year officials from the Walsh Regional Medical Unit in Rome, N.Y. underwent a $32 million project to improve and expand its prison hospital on the Mohawk Correctional Facility Campus. According to Correctional News, the improved medical unit offers long-term care for inmates who require more resources than are available in a typical prison infirmary.
One has to keep in mind the impact that social and medical needs can have on a jail facility. Goldberg points out it’s a much bigger and more complex environment now than 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Local jail populations may struggle with cognitive deficits ranging from dyslexia to psychosis. This is definitely a big issue—but what does it mean in the context of new facility planning? Again, video visitation offers a unique opportunity for special needs prisoners to meet with counselors and doctors. Many spaces are incorporating family spaces, as well.
These are things that weren’t even considered 40 years ago when jails were mostly given the cookie cutter treatment.
Another innovation introduced in the last 10 to 15 years is galvanized or galvannealed alloy steel cells. Similar to truck bed liner, the material is next to indestructible and cells come completely furnished and equipped, including showers. “I haven’t done a gang shower in a decade,” says Goldberg. Maintenance is an easier job, as all the technology within the cells is reachable from the back wall—meaning easy access for plumbers, electricians, etc. This means, too, that the outside of the jail can be constructed with fairly standard commercial construction.
Goldberg says “Rear chase modular cells are in and of themselves great machines. The cells can now be assembled and welded together using a series of structural plates in a way that provides increased safety in the event of a tornado or hurricane in the South. So to a greater degree than ever before, prisoners can be sheltered in place.”
What about biometrics?
Goldberg says they are starting to see biometrics used in jails, although this technology is still more often confined to industrial settings where corporate players are protecting million-dollar secrets. That said, corrections officers are less and less confined to fixed posts. At the new building in Muskegon command officers will be able to pick up a mobile device or tablet to answer intercoms and open doors.
Burns says “Command officers are currently carrying iPads to help with communication. We’re going to be able to run our master controls on both the second and third floor (with tablets). It’s going to provide freedom, flexibility and operational efficiency for staff because they won’t be tied to a desk; they won’t have to run back and forth to the desk then peer into a housing pod”.
Before the dust starts to fly
Based on his experience, Goldberg knows standout projects and success stories can come in any budget and size. Weighing in at $32 million for 622 beds, Muskegon was a larger undertaking. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Goldberg Group Architects recently worked with a small facility at Donovan Co. Kansas for about $3.1 million. “We helped them plan without a bond issue, without a tax increase… [it was] 48 beds and literally in four years they had paid their entire debt down to $895 thousand. Then they refinanced…they may have it paid off in another two years after that,” says Goldberg.
The National Institute of Corrections (NIC) is a good resource for training and technical assistance relating to new jail planning. The organization website offers a Jail and Justice Assessment work-up and tips on transitioning to a new facility. Beginning in August, NIC will have a ‘Planning of New Institutions’ training program that teaches the importance of in-depth planning before starting facility design.
Burns has been the jail administrator at Muskegon for eight years, but this was his first go at new construction. He started by learning as much as he could about the process, and along with the sheriff and county board of commissions attended the NIC’s New Institutions Program, which he said helped a great deal with learning what to anticipate and plan for.
“Now we’re working on figuring out what operations are going to be like and how we’re going to make the transition to the new facility.” Burns is on site every day, working with the construction team and providing the corrections point-of-view. “I was scared a little bit when I first started, but [Lawrence Goldberg and team] provided a really good stewardship role and did really well to help us understand how the process works and make sure that it’s working for us. So it’s really been a good project. I’d do it again,” he says.
Muskegon County broke ground this past February and hopes for completion in July. The new facility is located right next door to the old, which will now be used for administrative space and a corridor for the courts.
For agencies taking on this complex project, the first signs of a finish line can be a beautiful thing. Out with the old, in with the new and improved.