When proposing a new jail facility, one of the biggest questions that a county sheriff, county board members, and taxpayers want answered is, “How much will it cost?” In their minds, the answer they’re looking for typically involves costs for the physical structure, including building materials, labor, and land.
Granted, capital costs to build a new county jail can run in the millions, but it’s also important to go beyond the initial construction costs and look at how many employees will need to be hired to run the facility in years to come. Ongoing operational costs for a jail, including salaries and wages, could impact a county’s budget well into the future and needs to be considered as part of a master plan.
How Jail Design Impacts Staffing Requirements
A common misperception is that if you currently have a 50-bed jail and will double capacity, you’re also going to have to double the number of staff used to run it. This inaccurate assumption is often based on current staffing structures and the existing jail layout.
The design of a facility can significantly impact how many jail staff are required to run it. A traditional linear design found in most older jails — with its long hallways, expansive floor plan, and limited sight lines — requires numerous staff to supervise inmates and activities in multiple units.
The number of posts required to staff a podular jail design, however, is typically fewer and is one of the many benefits of a podular jail versus linear jail design. The podular jail layout, which can be envisioned as a circular pie-shape, helps correctional officers and administrators maintain a 365° view of every cell block and every cell from a master control hub in the center of the pod.
A podular jail design might identify fewer staff posted positions per shift to handle pod activities, booking and processing of inmates prior to entry, and overall master control monitoring of jail cells and security electronics communications. An additional rover position might also be identified to assist with booking, inmate movement and additional duty requirements related to inmate supervision. Cameras and video monitoring can supplement observation but cannot replace personal observations.
How Many Staff Does a Podular Jail Need?
Because of how a podular jail is laid out based on inmate classifications, it’s possible to substantially increase a jail’s capacity without substantially increasing the number of staff due to improved efficiencies and sightlines. The National Institute of Corrections (NIC) has materials available allowing you to conduct a staffing analysis of your proposed design. Your state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) typically works in conjunction with you to review that analysis, and make recommendations for a jail’s staff makeup to ensure that all staff posts are covered 24/7.
As an example, assuming a typical 40-hour work week, a podular jail design with three posts might only need five or six full-time employees (FTEs) per post. This might include a rover position for identified shift times which would equate to 15-18 FTE’s in total for the jail’s operational needs. It is important to note that this total does not include Administrative staff such as the jail administrator and positions identified such as sergeants for supervisory roles.
Once a plan is developed and you transition to a new jail building, you will need to monitor operations for a few months to assess whether your staffing needs are being met. They may need to be increased or decreased. Expect that things may need to be tweaked once the new facility and procedures are up and running.
Of course, support staff to include meal preparation, laundry, cleaning, health care, programming and more are needed for facility operations. Depending on their classification, some inmates may qualify as a worker for some of these positions and minimize expenses. Because the podular design is more conducive to monitoring all areas, there may be more opportunities for inmates to take on some of these roles.
Of note is that Huber inmates are increasingly being monitored electronically rather than housed within the jail, so facility staff needs may be reduced in this area. However, someone will still need to conduct routine checks, monitor inmate movements, and ensure compliance with this population.
Programming & Rehabilitation Staff
Communities that have good criminal justice programs also include staffing to assist with programming and rehabilitation efforts. Setting prisoners up for success and helping them to become better citizens when they reenter society should be a focus for any jurisdiction. Those who fail in this area are likely to see repeat offenders in their correctional facilities.
For most jails in the United States, that means providing programming to help inmates get and stay sober, or maybe it’s helping them with developing parenting skills, anger management, financial literacy, or a host of other important life skills. While many of these types of programs may not be required, they’re strongly encouraged and provide valuable structured activities leading to positive behavior management. Be sure to leverage community-based volunteer organizations to assist with some of these services and ease staffing concerns.
Smaller living units that are typical with podular designs contribute to a program’s success, as does working closely with your DOC representative and an experienced construction manager who understands the challenges of complex jail projects.
If you’re exploring your jail construction project options or would like an initial assessment of your needs, contact the jail construction specialists at The Samuels Group. We’re happy to talk through these and other considerations. Also be sure to download our Jail Planning Guide below for an overview of the planning process and what’s involved.
About the guest co-author: Nancy Thelen is the co-owner of Thelen Consulting. She works with agencies, counties, municipalities and communities providing technical assistance to enhance overall operations and promote best operational practice throughout the organization. She works to facilitate excellent training opportunities for leadership and all staffing levels and specializes in facility design and overall operational needs assessments..