How prison designers balance the needs, regulations and ethics of the industry
Prison and jails will most likely never serve as the inspiration for cutting-edge architecture, but the work that goes into them meets a crucial need for an industry that includes a significant percentage of the U.S. population.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were nearly 1.5 million people incarcerated in federal and state U.S. prisons in 2015, and that doesn't include almost 750,000 people being held in local city and county jails.
Although prisons may not be a hub of design innovation, the secure management of so many people requires practical, humane and safe solutions that prevent problems before they start.
A practical approach
"[The industry is] very functionally driven," said Jeff Goodale, global justice director at HOK.
The basis of all corrections design, Goodale said, is security first, which means protecting corrections staff from potentially dangerous situations and keeping inmates from hurting themselves and other inmates at all levels of detention — maximum, medium and minimum.
For example, line of sight between staff and inmates influences design, he said, as does the fact there is so much repetition — such as rows of beds cells and several of the same dorm rooms — within facilities.
Nevertheless, Goodale said, prisons aren’t cookie cutter projects. "We provide a different solution for every single client," he said. "It's always a customized design for the way they want to operate."
Efficiency in design is one of the ways architects can make a project stand out, he said.
Some ways they can get creative is to offer more durable solutions, like precast concrete in lieu of metal for outbuildings or a more resilient roofing system.
"States don't get a lot of money for maintenance, so we try to get as maintenance-free as we can," he said. "It has to last for a long time. They're not going to have the opportunity to replace it when it's worn out."
In fact, Goodale said, it's for that reason that HOK ends up allocating more money for materials on corrections-related projects than it does for many other types of structures.
Flexibility within regulations
Marcelo Ariola, managing director of real estate at CoreCivic, a national private owner and operator of correctional facilities, said that much of the design for prisons and other detention centers is dictated by the American Correctional Association, which is the corrections industry accrediting body that sets standards for all aspects of facility operation.
CoreCivic is also limited in its designs by state regulations. If state law does not allow inmates to take part in certain programs, those elements will be left out of the design.
However, according to Bethany Davis, public affairs manager at CoreCivic, states always allow for some type of programming, whether it's educational, vocational or life skills-related.
"Designs can be affected by what programs a state has deemed necessary and important for the populations they serve," she said.
For example, Davis said, CoreCivic added dedicated vocational training centers at two of its Georgia facilities because the state of Georgia has a shortage of welders and diesel mechanics. "Inmates use the space," she said, "to gain industry-recognized certifications in those fields that they can utilize for employment after release."
In general, Ariola said, CoreCivic is moving toward design-build delivery on its projects and will take on a local contractor to act as partner in each locality. The company has in-house architects who come up with conceptual designs, and then those are fleshed out according to local codes and other requirements.
The big design considerations, he said, are all related to how staff and inmates interact and the level of monitoring that the design enables. One trend, Ariola said, is a move toward putting all operations under one roof versus the more traditional campus style layout where inmates and staff move from building to building.
"New design [methods] increase facility safety," he said. "It's easier to keep track of people, much more efficient and cuts construction time down."
Budgetary restrictions have prevented many prison systems from building the facilities they need, so getting rid of the endless maze of hallways and "nooks and crannies" of older facilities — the unseen areas where inmates can get injured or engage in prohibited behavior — increases a staff's ability to monitor the inmate population and ensures everyone's safety.
Just like property owners everywhere, when dollars are short, owners choose to renovate instead of building new. "We've been doing more repurposing of existing prisons," Ariola said.
But government agencies sometimes choose to sell prison property rather than renovate. In those cases, Ariola said, investors often choose to turn them into something new, like hotels. "For older prisons, communities have been built around them," he said, "but the highest and best use could be something else."
The change in design includes more than cost considerations. Goodale said the "supermax" design style of a central command pod surrounded by 360 degrees of isolated prison cells is on its way out, part of a shift caused by the realization that isolation can be detrimental to the mental health of inmates..
"Isolation is a form of corporal punishment and can have more detrimental effects than physical punishment," he said.
Today's design, he said, reflects the move toward increased access to clinical staff, corrections officers and contact with other inmates. Even intake units at jails, he said, are designed for more observation and decision-making about whether the person who has been arrested should be routed to a mental health facility rather than immediately placed with other inmates.
An ethical debate
When it comes to prisons, there are unavoidable ethical questions, and there could be hesitation on the part of some to become involved in these kinds of projects.
The position of Raphael Sperry's organization, Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), is that architects should not design spaces that, as the organization puts it, could be used for killing, as in the case of the death penalty, or inhumane treatment that is often associated with prison practices like solitary confinement.
Sperry said that even when architects are asked to revamp a prison and make it less sterile and institutional, that design is only as good as the willingness of prison officials to change as well. "The problem is that you can't change the system by changing the buildings," he said. "You have to change the culture."
ADPSR has been lobbying the American Institute of Architects to change its Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to prohibit architects from taking part in any projects that could be used for inhumane treatment or killing.
Goodale disagreed with that notion and said if one drills down deep enough, that argument could be made for many types of structures. "Should architects design casinos?" he asked. "Should architects design bars? Should architects design marijuana grow facilities? Pharmaceutical [plants] where opioids are produced?
"The fact of the matter is that the criminal justice system is the third-largest employer in the U.S.," Goodale said. "Should the architect just ignore them?"
Goodale added that an architect who is sensitive to the mission of the facility and cares about the design could have a positive influence, not only in the quality of the facility, but in policy as well. "Architects," he said, "should be involved in the discussion."
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