8 Major Jail Construction Challenges & Considerations

The United States continues to have the highest incarceration rates of any other country in the world, with the majority of inmates being held in state prisons and local jails. Why this occurs and whether it’s justified are hotly contested issues among advocacy groups, legislators, and communities at large.

Regardless of public opinion, the fact that many correctional facilities are in a state of disrepair is a concern. Initiatives to decrease overcrowding and improve conditions for inmates (and workers) may help provide safer environments that are more conducive to rehabilitation efforts. Building or renovating a criminal justice facility, however, comes with its own unique set of challenges compared to other commercial construction projects.

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1. Communication and Information

It is critical that all key stakeholders and decision makers are on the same page and working towards the same project goals. This is especially important if community approval is needed for the project. Begin by sharing existing conditions that are driving the need. Examples include inspection reports or sunset authorizations, interviews with jail staff, personal tours of existing space to show non-compliance or inefficiencies, and an operational/cost analysis. Next, discuss solutions, timing, estimated costs, and financing options.

2. How to Pay for Your Project

Before a project can move forward it’s important to understand the options for construction financing, how to secure financing, the types of financing available (bonds, credits, refinance, etc.), and when financing should take place.

3. Location

The process of building a jail, detention facility or prison can take years. One of the most time-consuming elements is finding a location that’s not only suitable for the actual facility, but also meets with the approval of surrounding communities.

Early on, feasibility studies and site assessments need to be conducted to determine various logistical needs, including utilities, terrain, environmental considerations, and even the available workforce in the area. Jail facilities often take up a considerable footprint. Exterior barriers, parking lots, recreation areas, restricted access entries and roadways, retention ponds, and other features often take up much more acreage than for a typical commercial structure.

Contrary to some assumptions, jail populations have declined in urban areas, whereas rural communities have seen an increase of 83% between 2013 and 2019. While land availability in less populated areas may be more abundant, some of these smaller and midsize communities can form strong opposition groups, which leads to one of the biggest hurdles...

4. Community Buy-in

Despite a growing need to house more inmates, some communities and local policymakers may oppose the idea. A school building project, for example, may have broad support from parents, teachers, the school board and others who want to improve the quality of education for their children. However, these same constituents may not feel sympathetic toward inmate populations and their needs. 

Some community members, on the other hand, come to appreciate how a jail facility can benefit their area, as was the case in Guthrie County, Iowa. Voters there overwhelmingly supported a referendum to build a new jail, with 80% being in favor. According to the local sheriff, efforts to involve and inform the public through informational meetings, printed communications, media, videos, and social media helped get people on board and pass the measure.

Those who propose such facilities need to lay the groundwork to address and overcome common objections, including concerns over increased crime, tax impact, lower property values, environmental and economic issues, and more. Connecting with local land owners, stakeholders, historical societies, environmental organizations, and others in the community can help eliminate “miscalculated unveilings,” as one legislator put it. Working with a construction management firm that specializes in jail facilities, cost estimating, and pre-referendum and marketing services can help build consensus from the very beginning.

5. Security Level

The profile of those who will be housed in a jail or prison facility has a significant impact, not only on location and community buy-in, but on budgets. The higher the security level of a facility (e.g., maximum vs. minimum security), the more costly. 

Added security features may need to be incorporated into the design, including multiple exterior walls and fences. Various interior zones for activities, administration, work, and education may need to be equipped with alarm systems, gates, secure access, communication networks, and other security protocols. 

Specialized windows, doors, flooring, railings and construction materials will cost many times more than those commonly used in average commercial construction projects. Even common fixtures, such as faucets, toilets, hardware, latches, and furniture will need to be specialized to minimize an inmate’s ability to sabotage or modify them for use as a weapon or self-harm, as suicide prevention is a major concern.

6. Design

There are a lot of preconceived ideas of what a detention facility will look like, and some citizens may express concern over how it will be right-sized or “tarnish” their picturesque community. However, new facilities don’t need to look “institutional” or be a scourge on the landscape. A jail or detention facility can feature great design beyond its functional or utilitarian purpose. 

Casting a vision and helping community members visualize a new facility in its proposed location, as well as its interior, can do a lot for building consensus. Providing conceptual 3-D architectural fly-throughs and quality renderings of what the facility will look like, and how the lives of those who will live and work inside will be improved, helps people form a connection. 

Sharing how the design and features of the facility will aid in rehabilitation efforts is equally important, helping to create a sense of purpose beyond simply housing inmates to actually helping reform them.

7. Maintaining Operations During Construction

Maintaining day-to-day operations of a facility while it undergoes renovations and/or construction can be challenging but with proper planning and execution, the improved or expanded spaces can be brought online without the costly need to transfer inmates to other facilities (due to construction) and with minimal disruption to operations.

8. Specialized Construction Managers

Finding a construction manager that specializes in constructing correctional facilities is a challenge all its own. Not only do they need to have the necessary skills to build an attractive and functional structure that is unique to the needs of each community, they also need to have a solid understanding of the operations and workflow within correctional facilities. Correctional-specific experience with estimating, pre-construction, pre-referendum, and building consensus within a community will help ensure a successful project.

A construction manager should also have a solid network of specialized subcontractors and vendors that can provide the materials, products and services needed to meet strict compliance requirements. Lastly, a construction manager that specializes in correctional facilities will show staff members the ins and outs of the new facility including MEP and security systems, staff flow, and policy and procedures. This will help ensure internal procedures align with the mandated requirements of the State or the National Institute of Corrections (NIC).

The Samuels Group is experienced in all these areas and has successfully completed numerous detention facilities and law enforcement centers. Whether you’re in the early stages of planning or need to shift your efforts to align with your strategic goals for completion, contact our expert team for a complimentary consultation and check out our Guide to Jail Construction Planning.Guide to Jail Construction Planning

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