The architectural design of jails has evolved over time. Traditionally, jail facilities consisted of rectangular, linear buildings that had long corridors leading to inmate cells and areas for functions such as recreation, education, and other programming.
A shift in jail design began in the early 1980s when the Federal Bureau of Prisons challenged architectural firms to come up with a design that would improve inmate supervision. The podular jail design was introduced, not only improving oversight of prisoners, but bringing many other benefits along with it.
The Difference Between Linear and Podular Jail Design
Linear jail design stretches cells along long hallways and around acute angles, creating blind spots and the need for closed circuit television or other means to maintain 24/7 visual surveillance. Because the facility is stretched out over an expanse, officers can only make scheduled rounds to patrol areas, but there is little contact with inmates other than enforcement and routine wellness checks.
Podular jail design features a master control area in the center with cells and program areas surrounding the perimeter in a circular or pie-shaped layout. Staff doesn’t need to run down long corridors to see what’s going on because there are clear sight lines for observation of inmates and activities at all times. Cameras simply supplement direct supervision but aren’t the sole source of monitoring.
Proper design and construction can help overcome many challenges of today’s jail facilities and provide many more benefits.
Because of enhanced supervision, jail staff has immediate visual access to what’s going on in cell blocks, helping to minimize violence and disciplinary problems and enable a faster response to medical emergencies. All areas of the facility are visible at all times, reducing the likelihood of assaults on staff and other inmates. Podular design also reduces inmate movement throughout a facility. The community day room is located in front of the cells instead of down the hall, and many podular jails also have a mezzanine to give officers a look “from above or below” rather than having to travel between multiple floors to view activities.
Consider that most jails operate as a mini city, needing many of the same services that other living facilities require, and more. A podular design helps minimize the time needed to distribute those services. For example, distributing medications to inmates, serving meals, cleaning cell blocks, and conducting hourly wellness checks can be conducted more efficiently. Within a linear design, staff is required to travel longer distances, and the process is typically very staff-intensive. In many cases, the use of a podular jail design can minimize the number of required staff without compromising security.
Based on the same number of beds on a single layer, podular design typically has a smaller footprint than linear jails that are more spread out. This is a major consideration for congested municipalities or where land use is limited. A manageable number for a podular design is typically between 100 and 150 cells. Actual living space for inmates is dictated by code, requiring certain minimum square footage for cells, day areas, exercise areas, etc.
Most designs today go above and beyond the minimum space thresholds, however, making it possible to increase inmate count with double bunking. Even then, podular design typically uses space more efficiently because there are no expansive hallways or other nonfunctional areas.
Improved Inmate and Staff Relations
While there’s certainly a hierarchy between inmates and staff, podular designs support efforts to mitigate an “us vs. them” environment. Because jail staff is ever-present at the hub of a pod facility, contact with inmates isn’t limited only to enforcement and wellness checks. Staff is given more opportunities to interact with inmates and each other, helping to significantly increase communication and minimize the feeling of “territories” within a facility. All this serves to reduce tensions, further improve safety, and provide a more humane environment.
Improved Classification Management
All facilities have objective classification systems to determine an inmate’s custody status and housing. Unlike a prison facility which typically houses inmates for a single classification (e.g., minimum, medium, or maximum security), jails will have any number of classifications at a time. These classifications are more easily managed in a podular design with smaller living units and access to programming. Managing multiple classifications is more challenging in a linear jail, which requires larger hallways, more staff, and a bigger footprint to cluster classifications together.
The ultimate goal of any jail facility is to provide an environment that is safe, secure, and conducive to inmate rehabilitation. Providing programming for inmates helps with those efforts by preparing them for reentry into society. Individual program areas can be contained within a “slice” of the pie in a podular design, creating easier access and management.
These curriculums may include education, religious programming, AA or NA meetings, budgeting, anger management, one-on-one mental health counseling, workforce development training, and a host of other programs. Some facilities even provide opportunities for inmates to live-stream or video record themselves reading a book to their child without a jail uniform to help normalize their experiences and build parenting skills.
Of course, proper architectural design and construction management of a podular jail facility are the cornerstones of a successful project. The Department of Corrections (DOC) works closely with these teams throughout the design, development, and planning phases to ensure compliance. Communities that are considering a new or renovated jail facility need to work with experienced architects and construction managers who have established relationships and a proven track record in this highly regulated and niche market.
About the guest author: Nancy Thelen is with the Office of Detention Facilities | Office of the Secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, whose mission is to protect the public, its staff and those in their charge and to provide opportunities for positive change and success.