How Evolving Inmate Classifications Affect Jail Capacity & Design

Determining capacity for a new jail goes far beyond simply counting the number of available beds. Those familiar with corrections operations understand the requirement for an objective inmate classification system. 

How many beds and units should be in a newly constructed jail facility, and what type of jail design is most conducive to a wide range of classifications? 

The answer is determined based on detailed analysis of historic and recent trends, a potential reckoning with the new jail classification system, and a deep understanding of the community, population, and staffing.

ALSO READ: Guide to Jail Construction Planning

Jail Design & Housing Unit Considerations

Just because a bed is available doesn’t mean an inmate can be assigned to it. If you plan to build a 100-bed facility, for example, a portion may not be available because the population may not be classified to stay in certain units. 

A good rule of thumb is to never build a jail to 100% bed capacity and instead practice the 80% to 85% rule. This proactive approach allows for extra space to deal with classification situations as they arise versus transferring inmate(s) to other county jails.

ALSO READ: Unique Considerations for Jail Design & Architecture

Types of Jail Classifications

In the past, the prison classification system could be boiled down to three main categories: minimum, medium, and maximum security, with separate units for males and females (for a total of six). The classification process was pretty cut-and-dried, and it was generally understood that jails needed to provide at least six separate cell blocks to house each inmate category. 

New circumstances make the traditional model obsolete. Jail administrators need to consider where to house transgender inmates, co-defendants in a case, or rival gang members who may technically be the same classification but can’t be housed together for safety reasons. Accommodating inmates with mental illness also needs to be considered.

Instead of six classifications, jail administrators might need to manage 10 or 12, and they cannot be housed together

Establishing an Inmate Classification System

Each jail facility also needs to establish an objective system with policies to determine their eligibility criteria for work assignments, program participation, and community service. Some counties might maintain a dorm for Huber work release inmates, while others keep them in a minimum security unit or rely on electronic GPS monitoring.

Activities should be considered as well. Will they qualify to work in the laundry room or food service area? Will they participate in a drug rehab program or attend GED classes? Separation of classifications also needs to be maintained in areas where these types of services are provided.

Flexible Jail Design for Changing Jail Classifications

It’s easy to see how multiple nuanced factors put a strain on a jail administrator’s ability to determine the best jail layout. In fact, additional factors outside the facility may influence design decisions, including: 

  • The district attorney’s office caseload
  • The judicial viewpoint as it relates to bond
  • The number of law enforcement officers and classification staff
  • Available community alternatives to incarceration
  • The jurisdiction’s ability to quickly move inmates through the system
  • And more

Likewise, right-sizing a new jail facility requires answering several key questions:

  • How many receiving and pre-classification cells do we need?
  • How many specialized use cells are appropriate?
  • How many beds should be in each classification unit?
  • What kinds of correctional facility technology needs to be integrated?
  • What about programming areas and support services (kitchen, medical, mental health, storage, etc.)?
  • What’s the best floor plan and layout?
  • Can we use prefabricated jail cells?
  • And more

Finding answers requires a thorough assessment based on past jail population data, current needs, projected trends, and guidelines set by the National Institute of Corrections. This needs assessment is typically conducted with an architectural firm or construction manager who specializes in jail design in cooperation with the Department of Corrections, sheriff, county board, administrators, and other key stakeholders. Samuels Group often participates in these conversations to help ensure a good outcome.

In general, modern jail design features fewer dorms, smaller living units, and limited Huber accommodations. Increasingly, podular jail design is recommended to improve operations and traffic flow. It can minimize risks by separating housing units into smaller “pie pieces” with a central master control hub to monitor every section. There are ways to properly size and configure a facility so that the pods have flexibility to grow and adapt over the next 20 years or more. 

For example, you probably don’t want a 10-bed unit for maximum security if you typically only have one or two qualifying inmates at a given time, meaning eight or nine beds might sit idle. Assigning only three or four beds would be more appropriate. However, should things change in the future, knowing you have the capability to adapt can help you shift capacity should the need arise.

Staffing requirements in a podular jail facility are also different from those for a linear design, so be sure to consider the ancillary impact of your jail design decisions. 

ALSO READ: The Benefits of Podular Jail Design vs. Linear

If you’re feeling the pinch of capacity constraints at your jail facility and are exploring options, download our Guide to Jail Construction Planning to better understand the process of building a new jail or remodeling an existing one. Then, request a complimentary consultation from the experts at The Samuels Group. We’re happy to discuss your community’s unique circumstances and explore ways to address your challenges.

About the guest co-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.

Guide to Jail Construction Planning

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