Determining capacity for a new jail facility goes far beyond simply counting the number of available beds. Those familiar with corrections operations understand the requirement for an objective classification system. They need to classify inmates according to various criteria and take into account the liability concerns associated with keeping those classifications separate within the facility.
How many beds and units should be in a newly constructed jail facility? The answer is determined based on detailed analysis of historic and recent trends, a potential reckoning with new classification categories, and a deep understanding of the community, population, staffing, and more.
Housing Unit Considerations in a Jail
When it comes to management of housing units within a jail facility, just because a bed is available doesn’t mean that an inmate can be assigned to it. If you plan to build a 100-bed facility, for example, a portion of those 100 beds may not be available because the population may not classify to fit those units exactly. A good rule of thumb is to never build a jail to 100% bed capacity and instead practice the 80% to 85% rule. This pro-active approach allows for extra space to deal with classification situations as they arise vs. transferring the inmate(s) to other county jails.
Types of Jail Inmate Classifications
The largest factor impacting capacity is how an inmate is classified upon entry into the jail system. In the not-so-distant past, inmate classifications could be boiled down to three main categories: minimum, medium, and maximum security, with separate units for males and females (meaning, a total of six). These classifications were 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 have emerged in the last decade or so that have made the traditional model obsolete. It’s more than a matter of not housing males and females together, or even ensuring you don’t have a nonviolent drug offender in the same unit as a murder suspect.
Jail administrators need to consider additional categories, including where they will house transgender inmates, codefendants in a case, or rival gang members who may technically be the same classification but can’t be housed together for safety reasons.
Instead of six classifications, jail administrators might need to manage 10 or 12, and they cannot be housed together. Some counties might also maintain a dorm for Huber work release inmates, while others keep them in a minimum security unit. Increasingly, however, facilities are relying on electronic GPS monitoring and programs in lieu of incarceration to ease capacity.
In addition to determining an individual’s classification and housing, each jail facility needs to establish an objective system with policies to determine their eligibility criteria for work assignments, program participation, and community service. Will they qualify to work in the laundry room or food service area? Will they participate in a drug rehab program or attend classes to earn a GED? Separation of classifications also needs to be maintained in areas where these types of services are provided.
Jail Design Requires Flexibility for Changing Needs
It’s easy to see how multiple nuanced factors put a strain on an administrator’s ability to determine the best jail layout to maximize capacity. In fact, there are additional factors outside the facility that influence the decision, such as the district attorney’s office caseload and staffing, the judicial viewpoint as it relates to bond, the number of law enforcement officers, the availability of community alternatives to incarceration and the jurisdiction’s ability — or inability —to quickly move inmates through the system.
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 inmate classifications do we need cell blocks for?
How many beds should be in each one?
What about programming areas?
What about support services: kitchen, medical, mental health, storage, etc.
What’s the best floor plan and layout?
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.
In general, modern jail design features fewer dorms, smaller living units, and very 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 than those for a linear design. In our next article, we’ll dive deeper into proper staffing and how proper architectural design and layout help streamline and improve overall operations.
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. 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.