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Effective Correctional Facility Designs

From the outside, designing a secure and comprehensive correctional facility might seem easy. Holding correctional facility design, prisons, adult corrections facilities, and jails are all unique challenges for designers, as well as clients in the public sector.

Wold Architects and Engineers is one of the few selected firms that the Minnesota Department of Corrections recommends. They have a proven track record of designing complex and technically demanding facilities, and implementing processes, not just in Minnesota, but also in Illinois, Colorado and Tennessee, as well as across the entire region.

We advise public sector clients who are looking to construct or renovate secure correctional facilities to incorporate the guidelines of your state correctional department into your design to make sure your facility meets all their needs. We see this mistake far too often in our industry. Spaces are designed without collaboration and consideration between the client and design firm, as well as the Department of Corrections of the state or other licensing agency. This lack of collaboration could lead to pitfalls, such as increased operational costs or a reduction in bed count and licensure.

It is important to us that we work with companies who understand the construction and design standards for correctional facilities in each state. Years of familiarity and experience make it second nature to plan and design facilities in accordance with those standards. A trusting relationship can be established between the design agency and licensing authority, which may ease the approval process for variances to design standards. A design team with experience and knowledge of these standards will be able to devote their time more effectively to innovative ideas that can lower operating costs and make facilities safer and easier to maintain.

When designing correctional facilities, experience is important

What could be the risks involved in designing a facility for corrections without knowing the standards and rules enforced by the state you live in? Our analysis revealed that firms who did not follow or understand design standards had design and construction problems that prevented correctional facilities to operate as the Sheriff's Office expected. In some cases, jails are unable to accommodate inmates because the space is too small. Others have bad sightlines or did not comply with design standards. Some even increased their staffing costs due to an unproductive design. Some facilities have been downgraded to a lower level of licensure due to design problems.

We have observed facilities which do not comply with the size or square footage standard. Dimensions and area of cells, dayrooms, recreational spaces, services and programs, etc. Specific criteria must be documented. The design must meet these documented criteria. If it does not, the facility will be unable to use the space as planned, which may result in a reduced capacity, or empty cells. Cell areas should be designed to provide clear visibility from an officer's security station, or central monitoring position, towards all the areas in which prisoners will congregate. A poorly designed cell block can result in increased staffing or security concerns for the officers. It is important that the layout allows for efficient, safe and secure movement for both inmates and officers. Officers must also be able access all of the cells within a certain time frame to conduct wellness checks.

A design that reduces the number of times inmates have to leave their housing unit is another important consideration. It could be something as simple as creating meeting rooms that are accessible from the housing unit and can be used to provide educational, counselling or religious programs, or it can be more complex, such as designing housing units which can expand or reduce in size as the prison population changes. Some simple solutions that are often overlooked are adding nutrition stations to the units, and providing janitorial service so inmates don't have to leave the building. These simple but crucial design features may be overlooked by a firm that is less familiar with the highly-technical facilities. This can lead to the facility having to hire more staff, the biggest long-term expense for jails.

A building may not achieve the licensing level it is aiming for if they fail to comply with correctional facility requirements or do not seek out a special project variance. A downgrade, for example, could be a facility going from a holding facility that can hold inmates 365 days to one that only holds them 90 days. In order to reduce the time a facility is able to hold an inmate, the Sheriff's Office must rent beds in another facility. Inmates may also need to be transported from remote jails back to the courthouses located in the county where the crimes were committed, if the local jail is still inefficient. This can increase the cost of operating a jail, including bed rentals, staffing, and vehicles.

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