Prison Construction Trends: States Building Fewer but Larger Facilities

Article excerpt

As often as possible, Jim O'Neill, deputy superintendent for the Anne Arundel County Detention Center in Maryland, dons a hard hat and goes out to visit the construction site of the county's 450-bed minimum/medium security facility. He loves watching the pieces of the facility fall slowly into place.

"I get really energized by this," he says. "The last time I visited, they were putting up steel girders. It's pretty exciting to watch."

In many ways, Anne Arundel County's building project is like hundreds of others across the nation. Reacting to increased prison crowding caused by longer sentences, tougher approaches in dealing with violent offenders and the criminal justice system's inability to keep pace with the nation's crime rate, the county in 1989 began a carefully planned building program designed to add 1,000 new beds to the system by the year 2000.

Anne Arundel County was ahead of its time. In 1989, the U.S. prison system was in the midst of a steady population upsurge. And the county's decision to build resulted from projections that the population would continue to increase, rather than a response to court-ordered mandates or grantfunding initiatives, which since have prompted many other jurisdictions to plan new prison facilities.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that from 1980 to 1995, the total state and federal prison inmate population had grown by 242 percent, from 329,821 to 1,127,132. This was due in part to public-supported "tough on crime" initiatives, begun about five years ago, which are locking up habitual violent offenders for longer periods of time, often without the possibility of parole or good time. Yet, paradoxically, while U.S. prison populations have skyrocketed with changes in crime-fighting approaches, the national crime rate has remained relatively stable. In fact, the FBI Crime Index Rate for the United States has shown several decreases in the national crime rate since 1991.

Also responsible for the recent influx of inmates is the U.S. Department of Justice's (DO J) Violent Offender Incarceration/Truth-in-Sentencing Incentive Grant Program, which allocates formula grants to states interested in building or expanding correctional facilities. Grants are awarded to states on the condition that they implement truth-in-sentencing laws, which ensure that violent offenders serve substantial portions of their sentences. Approximately $10 billion has been authorized for this program through fiscal year 2000, according to a report by the DOJ's Corrections Program Office.

National Trends

As states scramble to stay one step ahead of the population boom, an analysis of national trends shows that U.S. prisons under construction today are vastly different from facilities built in the past. According to statistics compiled by Corrections Compendium, a criminal justice watchdog publication, prisons scheduled for completion in 1997 will contain a greater number of beds in higher security areas -- more specifically, medium-security units. And their overall capacities will be larger.

Jack Chapman, manager of justice facilities for Turner Construction, says it's more cost-effective to build one 2,000-bed facility than two 1,000-bed prisons.

Chapman and Stephen Donohoe, vice president of criminal justice for CRSS Constructors, also suggest that fast-track construction management, a methodology popular in the 1970s that enabled one part of a project to proceed before another was even designed, is making a comeback. A construction company often will award contracts for such jobs as the installation of site utilities, site cleaning and housing unit construction while the architect's design team still is developing other aspects of the project.

According to Donohoe, fast-track construction management gets beds on-line quickly, and cuts costs for states receiving multi-year funding, which often renders them financially unable to award a single contract for the entire facility in the first year. …