It may appear easy to design a safe and secure correctional facility design standards from the outside. Designers of holding facilities and clients from the public sector who are responsible for detaining people charged or sentenced for crimes face a challenging task.
Wold Architects and Engineers, one of a select few firms selected by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, has forged and sustained effective design processes not only for the highly complex and challenging facilities in Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado and Tennessee but throughout the entire Midwest region.
Our advice to clients in the public sector who want to design or build a correctional facility that is secure and meets state requirements, would be to involve your state’s department of corrections guidelines during your building designs. In the industry, we often see spaces that are not designed with the collaboration of clients, designers and state Departments of Corrections and other licensing agencies. In extreme cases, excluding this type of collaboration may lead to increased costs for the client and design firm and a decrease in beds and licensing levels.
Our firm believes it’s essential to partner with firms who are familiarized with the design and construction requirements of each state. After years of working together, it is second nature for us to make sure that the facilities we design and plan are in compliance with these standards. It is possible that a relationship of trust between your firm and licensing agencies can make the process easier when you are seeking to change the standards. Experienced design teams that are familiar with these construction and design standards can spend more time on innovations to reduce operational costs for facilities, make them safer for employees and to help decrease recidivism.
The Expertise of the Designer is Important when Designing Correctional Facilities
What risks are there in not understanding your state’s rules and regulations when designing correctional facilities? We have found that, based on our analyses of firms who have not followed design standards or understood them, there are design and building issues which have prevented the Sheriff’s offices from being able to run their correctional facility as they expected. The jails were unable house the inmates due to their small size, poor visibility, or a design that did not adhere to design standards. They also had increased costs for staffing because they didn’t meet design requirements in certain areas. There have even been cases where facilities were not licensed to the expected level due to poor design.
A common problem we’ve seen are facilities that don’t meet the required size and area standards. A cell’s dimensions, the size of its dayroom or recreation space, and any programs and services are all measured in square footage. The criteria for a cell, a dayroom, recreation spaces and programs must be specified. These spaces will not be able to be utilized by correctional facilities as they intended if the design doesn’t meet the criteria. This could result in reduced capacity and unoccupied cells. It is important that the cell area be designed so there are clear lines of sight from a security officer station or central monitoring point to any areas where prisoners may gather. Incorrectly developing the cell block may result in higher staff costs and safety issues for officers. Inmates and staff must have safe, efficient movement. Additionally, officers should be able quickly access each cell for a wellness check.
Another important aspect of jail design is to minimize the time inmates spend outside the prison. The solution could be simple, like adding meeting areas to the unit for religious, educational or counseling programming. Or it can even be complex, as in designing units that will expand and shrink as jail populations change. Addition of janitorial and nourishment services in housing units can also be easily overlooked. This will save inmates from having to go outside the unit. If a design firm is not experienced in designing such highly technical buildings, they may overlook these simple yet crucial elements. The correctional facility will then have to add more staff to handle the increased workload, and this can be the highest long-term costs for jails.
Buildings that fail to achieve their desired license level can be the result of not meeting correctional facilities standards, or failing to seek a project variance. As an example, downgrading could result in the building going from being a 365 day holding facility to 90 days. The Sheriff’s Department will have to hire bed space at another facility if they reduce the length of time a prison can keep an inmate. It may be necessary to transport inmates between these facilities and the courts located near the place of the crime, while still running an inefficient county jail. The factors above increase costs associated with bed rental, vehicle and staff. They also create potential risks.