4 trends impacting correctional facility design

Changes in facility layouts and demand for more capacity are shaping how construction teams design & collaborate to make the building process more efficient


By Tom Bartelli, DBIA

Correctional facility design has evolved over the years due to many factors including capacity, construction methods, politics and demand. These factors affect not only design, but also construction schedules and resources. Here are four trends currently impacting correctional facility builds:

1. Special management housing

Pictured is the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in Hartsville, Tenn. (Photo/Aerial Innovations)
Pictured is the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in Hartsville, Tenn. (Photo/Aerial Innovations)

One of the biggest trends impacting design is an increased emphasis on special management housing to address appropriate conditions for mental health and medical needs. One example is the addition of separate male and female mental watch units in addition to separate medical treatment units. This can also result in requirements for an increased number of padded cells and negative pressure cells, as well as in-cell cameras for monitoring inmates in these types of housing environments.

At one replacement prison currently under construction, the owner requested one of the 16 cell blocks be dedicated as a segregated unit that has some unique features such as a dedicated sally port entrance, wire mesh partitions around the video visitation and a higher level of security at the outdoor recreation area. This owner also requested that one of the 16 cell blocks be dedicated as a mental health unit that includes those same features. Based on this example, a little more than 10% of the cell blocks are now being dedicated to special management needs. The client also built these two units with the flexibility for each cell to handle one or two occupants, which better equips them to manage occupants with special needs.

2. Increased capacity

The corrections industry has seen an uptick in capacity requirements. With an emphasis on border security, many facilities now require more capacity.

Countrywide we are seeing increased receptiveness for four-man to eight-man cells to house the medium-security population as compared to the conventional two-man cell approach. This hybrid approach allows for a comparable level of security achieved with two-man cells while also achieving some reduction of the initial construction cost by reducing the number of fixtures, cell doors, cell demising partitions and intercom stations.

3. New builds

In addition to the need for more beds, the state of the economy is driving new construction or facility expansion rather than renovations.

New builds often have a higher first cost than renovation, but they can pay significant dividends in improved operating efficiency, safety and security.

The construction of new facilities allows more flexibility in floor plans, which can result in improved operational workflow, and, in some cases reduced staffing cost.

New facilities also require new equipment, which means the premium for investment in new technology – such as higher efficiency mechanical and electrical equipment or improved security electronics – is a fraction of the overall cost of new equipment. Owners are more willing to pay this incremental increase in initial investment for the long-term benefit of improved operating efficiency and facility performance. This varies from the perceived premium to achieve similar upgrades in an existing facility, where the cost includes the complete removal and replacement of existing systems which can be more difficult to justify when the existing equipment is getting the job done, albeit at a lower level of efficiency and performance.

As agencies look for ways to cut operating expenses and try to be good stewards of natural resources, they are considering the total cost of ownership and not just up-front construction costs. Many owners now take a hard look at how more efficient layouts and security systems can help lower the operator’s cost and utility charges for the life of the new building.

4. Specialty suppliers

The high volume of corrections construction currently underway and planned for the near future has placed an extreme demand for specialty suppliers and trade partners – an added challenge on top of an already-stressed labor market.

This increased demand is driving up the cost of security and detention-related products and services, as well as significantly increasing the lead times needed to procure materials; it appears to be a condition that will remain for the foreseeable future.

How are contractors handling this challenge? To account for added lead times, teams are tailoring design decisions to accommodate budget and schedule considerations that vary as production capacity for various components rise and fall with the start and completion of current and future projects. For example, the decision to design around a specific cell construction type can be shaped by the current and projected capacity of modular cell suppliers, which can also have a ripple effect regarding design approach for the overall structural system. This increased demand can also result in longer construction schedules, which can not only push back anticipated completion dates, but can also increase the cost of construction. In addition, limited manufacturing capacities and increased demand are motivating clients to select their contractors early, which allows the team to pre-plan and get long lead-time items purchased early to help eliminate delays and premiums.

Changes in corrections facility design and demand for more capacity are shaping not only the way owners approach their needs, but also how construction teams design and collaborate to make the process more efficient. With outside factors constantly evolving, the industry is taking an adaptable approach to ensure facilities have the flexibility and space to both meet physical housing needs, as well as mental health requirements, with construction evolving to meet these demands.


About the author
Tom Bartelli is the preconstruction services director for JE Dunn Construction. With more than 20 years of experience in project management and estimating, Tom focuses on the construction and renovation of correctional facilities nationwide, supporting estimating and preconstruction efforts to maintain project scopes while staying within clients’ budgets.

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