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Adult Detention Facilities - An Animal Unto Itself

05/30/2017 12:41:00 pm | Viewed: 920

Texas Construction News from Virtual Builders Exchange


The Waller County Sheriff's Office and County Jail. Following the suicide of Sandra Bland and subsequent state and federal investigations that cited inmate screening and safety deficiencies, Waller County Commissioners Court decided to build a new jail.


Posted: 5-31-2017, 8:14 a.m.

by Edmond Ortiz

“Building a jail…it’s an animal unto itself.”

That’s the way Danny Rothe, Waller County’s construction manager, sums up the uniqueness in constructing a detention facility.

At least 12 Texas counties, including Waller, are either planning to build new detention facilities or already have new construction or renovation projects underway.

These projects become a priority for numerous reasons. Beyond the oft cited need to lessen overcrowding, many jurisdictions see new or expanded facilities as an opportunity to support the more efficient reception and detention of inmates, and to shore up safety for employees and the surrounding community.

Tony Fabelo, research director for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, told Virtual Builders Exchange that despite population growth in many areas, most jails operate at below capacity.

Age is certainly a factor when capital expenditure decisions are made, but hand-in-hand are considerations about antiquated designs. Improved efficiencies are being sought with regard to centralized intake, the magistration process and detention functions, Fabelo said.

“Some of these jails are so old, it makes it difficult to process inmates efficiently,” he said. “You can have a modern jail, but you may not still have the right process for you.”


Fabelo consulted on Bexar County’s plan to overhaul its downtown-area detention complex. Last April, Bexar County Commissioners voted to redesign their plan to build a new South Unit Adult Detention Center (ADC), near the existing county jail.

The redesigned ADC plan accommodates a centralized intake center and magistrate court.
Fabelo described the new intake center as “a concept that would have a more open booking/intake area.”

It would be a vast improvement over the existing intake center, where inmates cannot easily access services such as physical and mental health checkups and pre-trial assistance, he said. The current system has resulted in costly delays for county personnel.

Employee safety is improved in an open intake concept, especially since there is no longer a need a transport inmates from the city facility.

“You’re actually safer in an open booking so long as the process is upgraded. The whole idea is to have a more seamless process,” Fabelo said.

Susan Pamerleau was sheriff when Bexar County began planning the redevelopment and expansion of its immense eight-block downtown detention complex. Since leaving public office, she has opened her own consulting firm, SLP Associates.

Aside from making operations more efficient, Pamerleau and her staff found it critical to integrate classes, counseling and other resources designed to improve inmate welfare and reduce the rate of recidivism.

“Where you can have medical and mental health services all right there, you have less movement (among inmates) and less of a security risk to staff,” she said.

Another benefit of the ADC addition, Pamerleau said, is that the structure will have abundant natural lighting.

“That has an impact on people and their well-being,” she said.


Former Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau on a 2016 panel that discussed county jail system reform.

Pamerleau said the new detention center’s design also permits jailers more direct supervision of inmates.

“With more direct supervision, a correction officer gets to know who’s doing well, not doing well,” she said.

She has seen a pattern in this direction at new and renovated detention facilities elsewhere.

“Overall, designs of detention facilities have progressed the last several years. In major metro areas, I see more designs moving toward those that want to do more than just detention. They work to prevent inmates from returning (to jail).”

Responding to Mental Health Needs

Mental health screenings of inmates have become an issue in recent years. Fabelo acknowledged many smaller counties and municipalities are unable to perform mental health checks adequately due to a lack of both trained staff and the physical space.

The case that stands out in Fabelo’s mind is that of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was found hanging in her Waller County jail cell three days after her arrest following a traffic stop in 2015.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reviewed Bland’s death. The TCJS concluded that the county jail failed to follow required rules, including time checks on inmates and ensuring that staff had the required mental health training.

“(Waller County staff) did the screening. It clearly showed (Bland) was potentially mentally in trouble, but the staff dropped the ball,” Fabelo said.

An independent panel delved further into the Bland case, determining that Waller County needed a bigger jail. Among other things, the panel suggested a new booking area with enough space to keep separate the arresting officers and the jailers who supervise the inmates.

The existing 1980s-era jail has a linear design - typical of many small to mid-sized, older jails - and the metal that prevails throughout the structure has been rusting out.

“It’s been a tremendous challenge keeping the jail active,” said Rothe, the aforementioned Waller County construction manager.

Waller County is now reviewing responses to a Request For Qualifications (RFQ) for architectural services.


A naturally lit inmate pod in Lee County, Alabama. This facility was designed by HDR using an open system for improved site circulation, safety and access to services.

The county is currently looking at an early estimated cost between $25 million and $35 million for a facility that includes a 240-bed detention area with kitchen, medical facility, intake area and sally port, in addition to a sheriff’s office. The current bed count is 110.

County commissioners have until Aug. 21 to determine whether to call for November general obligation bond election to fund construction. Rothe said the county is considering possibly adding magistrate functions at the new building.

“It’ll just make for a more secure atmosphere,” Rothe said.

The new jail could have a pod design, meaning it will provide for flexible multipurpose space.

“Everything we do here will be expandable,” Rothe added.

Waller County plans to hire a construction manager-at-risk, who would be more accountable to the county. Commissioners Court will also have flexibility to bid out specific elements of the facility to subcontractors.

Rothe said a detention facility, regardless of size and components, is a special structure that requires experienced architects and construction crews, as well as adequate building materials and proper building techniques.

Rothe said jails cannot be treated like most any other structures. Even something as seemingly simple as the type of concrete and conduits used matters.

“A door in a school classroom could cost $1,200 including installation. A door in a jail could cost $10,000. It can weigh a ton and need special equipment to install it right,” Rothe explained.

“Jails are designed at maximum security standards, and built to a whole other level,” he added.
The specialized nature of correctional facilities design was also part of Pamerleau’s experience. Shoe noted how, for example, an inmate could remove a standard office door hinge, file it down and weaponize it.

“You have to think about whether screws are long enough to be tamper-proof or short enough just to hold something in place. It’s a specialized area of architecture,” she added.

Costs per square foot for a detention facility are rising — $350-$425 for the holding cell area, $250 for sheriff’s office/administration, and from $160 to $180 for the sally port, Rothe said.JailsBrandonWood_TCJS_553685459.jpg

“Over $300 square feet on average for a jail may not sound appealing to a budget-conscious commissioners court,” said TCJS Executive Director Brandon Wood.

A renovation/expansion can be just as costly where tearing down concrete and steel is concerned, he added.

Wood said it can take months or even years for a jurisdiction to discuss and plan for new or renovated detention facility. Such deliberate consideration is crucial, he added.

“They have to determine the size of the facility they will need to last the building’s lifespan. This isn’t a snap decision,” Wood noted.

Wood said that is why jurisdictions such as Harris County are taking their time to how to proceed with a possible expansion of the juvenile detention facility at Chimney Rock.

County officials have long been challenged by overcrowding at the juvenile detention center. According to one Houston Press story, the design alone could cost $8 million.

Compounding matters was Harris County’s failure to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires separating 17-year-olds from adult inmates.

Harris County had been considering sending juveniles to a Limestone County facility operated by a for-profit contractor, LaSalle Southwest Corrections.

Lasalle has also taken criticism for failing TCJS inspections and inmate safety concerns. Harris County did not get relief from the Texas Legislature, which this session failed to act on raising the criminal responsibility age from 17 to 18.

It’s these factors that weigh heavily on the minds of the decision-makers when it comes to constructing detention facilities.

“Some counties tend to build more than they need,” Wood said. “That’s the biggest challenge: when you go into speculation, it may not work out like you hope.”


The Bexar County sheriff's and jail complex occupies the equivalent of about eight city blocks. A new expansion of the Adult Detention Center on the south end will improve circulation, access to services, and lower costs. It will also house a new magistrate court.

Other Texas Jail Projects

Comal County Commissioners Court in March chose Yates Construction and Sundt to oversee the building of a new $62.3 million jail and repurposing the existing jail for sheriff’s office operations. See VBX Project ID 2016-22E7

Having to ship inmates to other facilities due to a lack of space, Ector County commissioners in Odessa voted in late May to issue $25 million in debt to expand the current jail, using a pod design. See VBX Project ID 2016-562E

Webb County commissioners voted earlier in May to put a $96 million jail construction project on the November ballot. County officials see it as the right time to build a new facility; the existing jail was built in 1986 and has added only 100 beds to a 570-bed total in all that time.

Last year, Tarrant County commissioners hired HDR and LBL Architects Inc. to design expansion and enhancements to the county’s juvenile detention center, with plans to wrap construction in 2019.

VBX is also tracking pending jail projects in the counties of Bastrop, Bee, Chambers, Coleman, Hays, Montgomery and Wichita.

Lampasas County voters approved an $18.7 million bond issue in May to fund a new jail and law enforcement center. The county plans to build a 55,000-plus-square-foot, 112-bed complex. See VBX Project ID 2017-0DD2

The 46-year-old jail/sheriff’s office measures 9,000 square feet. It has 37 inmate beds, but the facility’s average daily population is 53, so the jail regularly sends inmates to facilities out of county.

“It’s just old, antiquated, small, and dangerous to operate,” said architect Kenneth Burns Sr. His firm, Austin-based Burns Architecture LLC, is planning a non-linear design for the new Lampasas County facility.

This design, Burns said, will help staff to better maintain the facility during its lifespan, which is typically 25-30 years for a jail.

“Jails are so used up. They’re not like other buildings that are maintained,” Burns explained. “They’re used around the clock and the people in there (inmates) don’t want to be there, so they’re tearing things up.”



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Zoom Related Images
The Bexar County downtown Sheriff's Offices and Adult Detention Center
TCJAS Executive Director Brandon Wood
A modern inmate pod with natural light, Lee County, Alabama - designed by HDR.
Former Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau
CSG Justice Center Research Director Tony Fabelo
The Waller County Sheriff's Office and County Jail
Author Info
Adolfo Pesquera

Adolfo Pesquera is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.