Rapid construction of modules aimed at alleviating prison overcrowding in Illinois
By Michael D. Cole
If a project currently underway in Rockford, Ill., is any indication, the widespread use of precast concrete in jail construction could become a prevalent solution to a growing prisoner population in the United States.
By most accounts, the increases in incarceration have placed extreme pressure to expand on correctional facilities. But reduced levels of spending nationwide have resulted in prison overcrowding numbers that routinely exceed stated maximum capacities.
The issue echoed across Winnebago County, located just west of Chicago, where ground broke last year for a 600,000-square foot facility in downtown Rockford to be known as the Winnebago County Criminal Justice Center. Construction of the building resulted after decade-long government efforts to increase prison expansion.
Indicative of a need to alleviate its own overcrowding, Winnebago County’s new state-of-the-art justice center, at an estimated cost of $122 million, will accommodate 1,224 beds. In contrast, the existing facility holds about 400 beds, although officials have said it was initially designed to house even fewer inmates. Even the general public acknowledged the serious scope of the issue, as the new justice center was funded, surprisingly, through a voter-approved 1 percent sales tax increase.
“The overcrowding dilemma is not unusual,” said Gary Burdett, the county’s appointed project director. “This has happened at a number of jurisdictions around the country.” Burdett explained that a number of government entities have faced the fact that they just can’t keep up with prison populations. “It’s a common phenomenon.”
As in Rockford, prison overpopulation has sparked a recent construction boom throughout the industry, hastened in some cases by prisoner-initiated lawsuits and other legal mandates dictating a fast resolution to overcrowding.
Although construction of the Winnebago justice center is just underway, Burdett said the county has demonstrated its own commitment to a quick construction timetable, with completion targeted for spring 2007 in order to do its part to alleviate the situation and fulfill inmate space needs as rapidly as possible.
Burdett said the decision to use precast concrete is playing a role in the accelerated construction schedule. “The time advantage of precast – the idea that it is cast off site and brought in and set – lends itself to rapid construction,” he said.
In addition to the new justice center, the 12-acre site will include four courtrooms as well as county sheriff, state attorney and other public service offices. An underground tunnel will connect with other county buildings.
Careful coordination, unique collaboration
Though utilizing a cast-in-place foundation, the criminal justice center will feature 609 modular precast concrete cells. Winnebago County awarded the $9.4 million bid for its construction in May to Egyptian Concrete Co. of Salem, Ill.
“If you had to field-pour all the cells on this job, it would probably add at least five months to the completion of the project,” said Rich Cooper, Egyptian Concrete project manager.
The company is relying on Rotondo Weirich Enterprises of Lederach, Pa., as a subcontractor to provide 403 finished castings, while Egyptian Concrete tackles the full-package project at its Salem plant, located 300 miles south of Rockford. Delivery of the modular cells was scheduled for November 2005 following production at the 43-acre Egyptian Concrete site.
“We’ll set 10 to 15 modules per day, the equivalent of 30 cells, which is going to help the schedule immensely,” Cooper said.
A 65-year old company, Egyptian Concrete specializes in prestressed and precast concrete products. Its established track record for prison construction projects in close proximity to operations includes work for the Marion Federal Prison and Lawrence County medium security prison (both in Illinois), the Southeast Correctional Center and Jefferson City Correctional Center (both in Missouri), and Michigan City Prison (Indiana).
Egyptian has tackled other major projects such as ConSpan bridge systems, several railroads, and lock-and-dam services for the Corp of Engineers. “Probably one of our strongest points is that we do jobs that most people aren’t interested in taking on,” said Cooper.
Another strong point, he said, is the quality of the company’s concrete, including that for the Winnebago justice center, which Cooper said is a high-early structural mix.
“It’s designed so that we can strip the forms the next day,” he said. “It has to be really strong in order to get that kind of strength in 16 hours. We’re getting strengths in the 10,000 psi range. With a field-cast mix you’re looking at around 4,000 psi. Cooper said the mix has a low water-cement ratio, which always helps with strength. “It took us years to develop, but it’s a good, strong mix.”
In its support role for Egyptian Concrete, Rotondo Weirich, which also produces precast concrete housing modules for the prison building industry, is lending its forms to Egyptian Concrete and overseeing various finishing, painting and furniture installation facets of the job.
Rotondo Weirich has established a mobile plant concept that aims to bring on-site production and finishing processes to its customer’s sites, a system it first initiated in 1994 when it produced 3,500 cells for the Florida Department of Corrections after establishing a temporary plant in state. The company also recently completed a large-scale project for the U.S. Department of Justice, consisting of 864 modular cells in Pollock, La., for a federal correctional institute.
Malonoski said synergies with Egyptian Concrete have resulted in streamlined collaboration that enables the companies to adhere to Winnebago County’s aggressive timetable.
“We’re used to setting up a plant,” Molonowski explained. “Typically, we’ll have to go in and grade the land, prepare it and stabilize it, and then pour the pad – and that has to be level to accept our forms, which have certain tolerances we have to meet in fabricating the cells. Having a pad already in place (at Egyptian Concrete) has definitely helped, and they’ve made their tools and materials accessible, so we’re not wasting an hour scrambling to a local supplier for something we otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s a reason we’re out ahead of the project schedule.”
With time of the essence, Burdett said a precast concrete solution was also selected for the architectural panels. The $4 million bid was awarded to High Concrete Technology, formerly known as Concrete Technology Inc. prior to its recent acquisition by the High Concrete Group, Denver, Pa.
An unobtrusive design
As speed of installation is a priority, Jan Horsfall, an architect with The Durrant Group, the firm commissioned to design the justice center, said that a precast concrete option was the best for Winnebago County.
Horsfall, who works out of the Madison, Wis., office of Des Moines, Iowa-based Durrant, noted that the firm had considered a metal cell system, but it would have been a longer process for them.
“In a lot of cases, it’s easier to install (using) a precast plant,” Horsfall added. “On site, you have different people working on the cell and there are often conficts and differences, versus if it originates from a plant, there’s just a little bit more of a controlled environment.”
The Durrant Group is familiar with downtown justice center projects, having been involved with renovation of the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix as well as with construction of Milwaukee’s secure detention facility, a modern nine-story tower. “All three of these (including Winnebago County) look different,” said Horsfall. “We strive not to be cookie-cutter.”
While Horsfall said the other two projects did not rely on precast concrete in their designs, he noted that circumstances made it more prudent in the case of Winnebago County. For example, a precast modular approach could ensure a timely construction schedule even through Rockford’s cold winter months. In addition, Winnebago County’s four-level structure was more modest versus the high-rise design in Milwaukee, making a precast concrete solution all the more sensible, he said.
Horsfall said a precast modular solution is also consistent with the modular design needs of today’s prison cells. He noted they have evolved due to the safety considerations of both staff and inmates, plus the emergence of electronic communications and security systems, locking devices, and security furnishings and fixtures.
“Your housing units used to be more linear where you’d be looking straight down a hallway,” Horsfall said. “With a modular design you have bigger open spaces, so when you’re using video surveillance cameras, you can more easily monitor activity within the unit.”
The Durrant Group’s success designing justice centers specifically in downtown locales reflects another recent trend, created partially by the escalating demand for more spacious detention centers built with greater conveniences.
“In the case of Winnebago County, they were considering transportation costs between the jail and the courthouse, and this facility provided them that quick access they sought,” said Horsfall, who also cited safety considerations. “They also wanted to maintain a presence downtown and try to revitalize the city center a little more, especially as activity has disappeared to the outskirts.”
As was the case with Durrant Group’s other projects, the Winnebago Criminal Justice Center has received praise for its less-intimidating design (in stark contrast to traditional jail buildings) and its ability to blend in with office buildings in the area.
“It was agreed that we didn’t want to have a ‘slit-window gun-tower’ type of impression in the downtown area,” Burdett said.
The Winnebago Criminal Justice Center escapes from the stereotypical and often frowned upon “slit” design, offering a unique solution to the issue of increasing prisoner populations. With its ability to meet a tight construction schedule, its high strength, modularity and customization, precast concrete proved to be the perfect choice for the Winnebago Criminal Justice Center, and could signal the start of a growing trend in prison design.
Project: Winnebago Criminal Justice Center
Owner: Winnebago County (Illinois)
Architect: The Durrant Group, Madison, Wisc.
Precast Manufacturer: Egyptian Concrete Co., Salem, Ill.
Precast Manufacturer Subcontractor: Rotondo Weirich Enterprises, Lederach, Pa.