M+A Architects


Designing Justice Facilities for Security and Efficiency

  • MARCH 31, 2015
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After a three year decline, the United States inmate population increased in 2013 to approximately 2.2 million in state and federal prisons and local jails. Having the largest prison population in the world takes a toll on not just correctional facilities, but also courthouses and law enforcement centers. Designing justice facilities that support staff, heighten safety and security, and run smoothly – making best use of taxpayer dollars – is increasingly vital.

“Justice facilities are challenging, in that they need to be accessible and secure at the same time. These buildings' purpose is to serve the public and the community, so they should be inviting and easily accessible to the public. But at the same time, in light of recent actions, security concerns have now become a pervasive part of American life—which directly affects building design,” said architect Jim Mitchell, who's specialized in municipal design for most of his 34 year career.

US Prison Population Local prison population not included, click for source

Leveraging design to support operational procedures and enhance security is critical in these types of facilities to maximize the use of detention staff and also allow staff to efficiently flow to areas when needed. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2013 there were 9.9 inmates for every correctional officer. And in courthouses there are a variety of occupants at any given time, from inmates to jurors, yet few security personnel. To successfully support operational staff these techniques greatly depend on the building type and different user groups that will use the space, however “placing building entrances in such locations that they may be visible from manned control locations, the use of cameras and closed circuit television at all entrances has become the standard,” said Mitchell.

Justice facilities also leverage a building’s design to control traffic and create intentional separation between the public, the occupants, and the staff, supporting appropriate interactions (or no interaction) between each user group.

Courtroom Entryways 1: Judge entry, 2: Jury entry, 3: Prisoner entry, 4: Public entrance (Click for larger view)

Let's look a typical court room: an entrance is needed for the judge, another separate entrance is needed for the jury and court support, a third secured and separated entrance is required for the alleged person who is charged or awaiting arraignment, and finally, a public entrance is needed for those attending court.

Assuring only appropriate interactions helps eliminate potential conflicts that may occur between different entities. “The passive design is further enhanced by access control hardware at entry doors which are monitored by cameras and CCTV system to further protect against potential interface of separate parties,” said Mitchell.

Last, and definitely not least, maximizing the value of the building for the community it serves is constantly top-of-mind for the designer. Knowing that improvements will inevitably arise from state and federal laws concerning justice practices helps prevent the need to ask the public for additional funding. These facilities are constantly adapting to newer technologies and protocol. To address this Mitchell said, “designing a building that has a high net area usage, flexibility, and room for growth over the next 25 years or so” will make sure taxpayer dollars are well spent.

M+A Architects