Unique Considerations for Jail Design, Architecture, and Construction

The construction process for building government facilities like law enforcement centers, county jails, detention centers, and correctional facilities is vastly different from a typical commercial construction project. There are tangible requirements like design, building materials, and the actual construction of the facility. But there are also many intangible yet critically important aspects of the design that need to be factored in.  

Is your community considering new jail construction or a jail renovation? It’s helpful for sheriff’s departments, county board members, and other stakeholders to understand many of the complexities before moving forward.

Jail Planning and Design

A big decision for jail planning teams is whether to design and build a podular jail vs. the traditional linear layout. Sight lines for correction officers are critically important to ensure security, which is why podular jail layouts are increasingly being used. A podular design centralizes the master control area and provides officers with an unobstructed view of the entire cell block. This includes strategic configurations of processing and programming rooms, detoxification and holding cells, visitation and dining areas, and more. 

The design and placement of booking and receiving rooms must consider flow and evolving inmate classifications to ensure compliance and maintain safety. Areas like meal prep, laundry, medical examination, and mental health evaluations need not only be functional, but create a cohesive flow. 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Benefits of Podular Jail Design vs. Linear

Auxiliary Areas

Every administrator and sheriff knows that a jail facility needs to do more than simply book and house inmates. Numerous other functions take place in law enforcement centers that need to be included in the construction plan. 

The placement of administrative offices and dispatch centers are located outside the inmate occupied area and requires coordination between staff, utility companies, and IT professionals. Areas with extensive electronics, such as 9-1-1 call centers, typically require access panels in the flooring to accommodate cabling associated with emergency response systems. Placement of counsels is also critical. A mockup is typically configured prior to final installation and operators are invited in to ensure they can clearly view screens and access necessary equipment efficiently.

Mechanical Access

The utility and mechanical needs of a jail facility are extensive. For example, any electrical wiring needs to be encased in conduit to limit tampering and is usually secured underneath floors or above ceilings. 

In addition to specialty lighting and furnishings, each cell typically has its own toilet and sink. If something goes wrong with a cell’s toilet — say, an inmate flushes a bedsheet — a repairman needs to securely access the plumbing. Jail architects will include a mechanical chase in their designs. The mechanical chase is a secure area located behind cell walls that allows a technician to access utilities without having to interact with inmates or even enter the main housing area. 

Jail Building Material Selection

Those who construct jail facilities aren’t heading down to their local lumber yard for materials. Specialized commercial construction materials for jails are obtained from certified detention contractors and installers. Some of these specialty items include detention-grade doors, windows, lighting, and finishes that comply with the appropriate level of security. 

Fixtures like louvers and faceplates need to have security fasteners, and gaps around these fixtures, including doors and other features, cannot exceed 1/32- inch without having security caulk. This ensures that inmates cannot hide items in the gaps. Special anti-pick caulking is used in common spaces like day rooms, and abuse-resistant epoxy sealants are applied in cells and high security areas. Epoxy paint is used for its ease of cleaning in addition to its durability. These types of small details add up and add to the complexity of jail construction, requiring extensive coordination and project management.

Communication Among Stakeholders

There isn’t a single project owner when it comes to jail construction. In fact, numerous stakeholders play a role, stressing the importance of working with a construction company that has extensive experience in building these types of facilities. Multiple government agencies, sheriff’s departments, county board members, transition teams, and taxpayers all play a role in a project’s success. Creating a cohesive and highly organized plan from concept to completion is the glue that will help build consensus around everyone involved and help a project go smoothly. 

To achieve these results requires a construction team that gets to know the county officials and community where a facility will be built. When considering which construction company should coordinate and execute your project, be sure to ask about their pre-construction services that will help lay the foundation for a successful outcome. Also be sure to download our Guide to Jail Construction Planning resource below with additional discussion topics.

Guide to Jail Construction Planning

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