Inside six North Carolina prisons, there’s little chance anyone can take his own life.
By Michael D. Cole
The most visible challenge facing modern prison construction is to make more room for incoming inmates – and fast. But another concern, skimmed over by the public eye, lurks in the shadows: inmate suicide. The nearly complete six-prison project in North Carolina is proof that with sophisticated precast concrete design and efficient prototype construction, inmate suicide prevention is possible.
The North Carolina project is most noticeable for its innovative and consistent prototype design strategy. Each of the six prisons contains 1,000 cells (992 precast concrete cells in five housing areas and separate cells for eight inmates in medical and intake areas) spread out among 400,000-plus square-foot footprints. Built with attention to detail, each fully outfitted prison also addresses the widespread issue of inmate suicide. All of the cells including each of the 992 precast concrete cells and accompanying accessories are designed with safety in mind.
Quality with consistency
The modules were provided by Oldcastle Precast Modular Group of Telford, Pa. Oldcastle specializes in solutions for the prison industry, and the company operates more than 70 manufacturing plants in North America.
According to Douglas Bruhns, sales and marketing director for Oldcastle Precast Modular Group, the organization has produced nearly 50,000 cells for the prison sector since the company was founded in 1990. Initially, Oldcastle, under general contractor Centex Construction (a division of publicly traded Centex Corp.) in Orlando was awarded the precast cell module contract in late 2001 for the first three facilities, which are located in Scotland, Anson and Alexander Counties in North Carolina; work on those was completed in early 2004. A collaborative design entity composed of Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, O’Brien/Atkins, and Walter, Robbs, Callahan & Pierce were the architects of record. Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum P.C. was the architectural design consultant.
Centex was awarded the contracts in late 2003 for the fourth and fifth prototype prisons, located in Greene and Bertie counties respectively, and upon completion of the first three facilities, construction began on these two. Centex was subsequently awarded the sixth prototype prison project in Columbus County in 2005. The fourth and fifth prisons were completed concurrently this spring, with work also commencing at the same time on the final facility, which is scheduled for completion in first quarter 2008. In the case of each prison, Centex, Oldcastle and the collaborative design teamed worked together to complete the first five facilities, and they are currently gearing up for the sixth prototype prison.
“The fact that everything has been the same throughout has made this comparatively easy,” said Sandra Marks, senior project manager for Oldcastle. “I know the material that’s going into them. I know what the details are, what needs to change, and each time, we’re always perfecting something else on the project. We’re constantly improving because we’ve already seen what has worked well with the first three.”
For all six facilities, the state of North Carolina agreed to a precast quad module design (as opposed to a two-cell precast module), featuring four one-bunk cells per quad with all fixtures, electrical components and furniture preinstalled in each unit. Each quad cell unit weighs 93,000 pounds and contains 23 cubic yards of concrete. Each cell provides at least 70 square feet of total floor space for each inmate with larger cells designated for inmates with handicaps.
“A benefit of using an entire precast cell versus a precast exterior wall panel with concrete masonry walls in the cells is the workmanship and a monolithic construction,” said Jim Gates, project manager for the Central Engineering Division of the North Carolina Department of Correction, who has overseen the project for the state. “You do not have the interior cell wall to exterior wall connection problems you may have if you have a concrete masonry unit to precast wall, for example,” Gates said.
Potentially life-saving design
Beyond those design benefits, the precast cells can help prevent inmate suicides according to Barbara Bogo of the Oldcastle Precast Modular Group.
The solemn and little-talked-about issue is one that both prison and jail systems at the federal, state and local level continue to tackle, as inmate suicide remains an issue that plagues the entire criminal justice system.
Although statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice suggest that inmate suicides overall are on the decline during the past 20 years, suicides at one time had, astonishingly, been the leading cause of jail inmate deaths (in 1983). Statistics also suggest that the suicide rates in detention facilities have been as high as nine times higher than that of normal society.
Larry Wann, who along with Jim Gates, is a capital project manager for the Central Engineering Division of the North Carolina Department of Correction. Wann said that “one suicide is enough. It’s a human life. We are charged with not only protecting the public , but sometimes you have to protect the inmate from himself. It’s hard to tell what a person’s mental state will cause him to do, but you sure hope the design you’ve incorporated goes part of the way.” Wann said the mentality or thought process that you need to take into consideration within the design is that an inmate has 24 hours a day, seven days a week to do nothing but be mischievous. Not all, but many of those inmates relish being mischievous.”
Those motivations can particularly surface at the six prototype prison facilities being developed in North Carolina. Each are all high-security “close-custody” detention facilities with single cell housing for all inmates. Some inmates at these facilities will be spending almost all of their time in the cells. All inmates will be locked in their single cells at night.
Nothing is fool proof, and some prisoners will go to any extreme to commit suicide, but a cell designed with suicide prevention in mind can dramatically reduce those opportunities.
The architectural design of inmate housing units in conjunction with highly specialized suicide preventive cell furnishings are dual considerations when designing prisons. This year, an awareness campaign led by Oldcastle was marketed to more than 3,000 architects and other construction professionals to promote the structural benefits and value-added accessories of precast concrete cell construction. “We want to know that these are available if you need them, and in terms of cost, there really isn’t much difference,” Marks said. “Considering some of the litigation factors, you may be saving money in the long run.”
In selecting a precast solution, Bruhns said that “there are some inherent gains by the owner using this kind of construction. The modules are five-sided monolithically poured cells with no wall-to-wall or ceiling-to-wall joints, which lowers the risk of hiding contraband or any object that the inmate can use to injure himself or others.”
For the six-prison projects, Oldcastle used a 5,000 psi self-consolidating concrete. To support the intensive project, an Oldcastle sister facility located in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., near Raleigh was enlisted to produce the correctional precast units.
Bruhns said a precast cell is capable of withstanding extreme physical abuse, clever entry, concealment attempts and tampering. The absence of joints at the ceiling and between the walls, for instance, eliminates the ability to anchor a hook through the wall to commit hanging. In addition, Bruhns said due to the monolithic design, the absence of wall-to-wall joints or ceiling-to-wall joints deters inmates from picking away at a joint, using the debris as a makeshift weapon.
NCDOC’s Wann indicated that the state follows several best practices to ensure safety and antisuicide prevention. “In addition to , you want to make the cells escape-resistant,” he said. “You want prisoners first and foremost to remain inside the room. After you’ve accomplished that, you can add escape-resistant features such as the sizing of the windows.”
Theoretically, someone can get through an opening if his head manages to get through, “so you design those small enough. We use round corners wherever possible within the structure so prisoners can’t inflict damage or cut themselves on sharp edges. You put light fixtures where they are inaccessible to the inmates and suicide-preventative grills where shoelaces or sheets cannot be threaded through to enable a prisoner to hang himself. These are all the things we consider.”
Marks said a precast cell has smooth, solid surfaces and no ligature points, noting that the use of precast concrete can also lower the risk of cell wall failure over the operational life of the facility. “Corrosive materials or bodily fluids can deteriorate cell walls over time,” she said, “allowing for corroded areas to be used to hide contraband or be used as a ligature point. Due to its relatively impermeable noncorrosive nature, concrete lowers the risk of cell wall failure in today’s prison environment.”
Marks said the North Carolina facilities feature an array of suicide-prevention accessories. “Towel hooks are the small break-away style integral to the combi fixture, so anything heavy that is hung on them will cause downward hook release. And the vertical windows are designed such that there is a bar but you can’t wrap anything between the bar and the glazing.” The horizontal windows’ sills are sloped inward to make hiding contraband more difficult. This special design promotes an easier and more efficient inspection for officers. Combination toilet and lavatory units are all rounded and provided by an Oldcastle-enlisted vendor. The lavatory valves are furnished with stainless steel pushbuttons to avert vandalism.
“If you’re using our precast cell and furnish it with all of those items, I have to say that’s an excellent solution,” Marks said.
Other prototype benefits
While the six North Carolina facilities may all be duplicates, the areas where they are all located are anything but similar. Reflecting the state’s diverse geography, the prisons have all been built under varying terrains and weather conditions.
Little Diversified Architectural Consulting’s David Welling, an architect within the firm’s civic division, was involved in the prisons’ design. He said that factors including the immense scale of the facilities were conducive to a precast modular approach. “Could each facility have been constructed with block and still be secure? Sure it could have,” said Welling. “But I think we would have lost quality due to the inherent nature of block not being a manufactured product without the high quality assurance program that the modules have.”