By Jim Wiginton, Wiginton Hooker Jeffry Architects
Everyone understands that building a county jail is an expensive endeavor. Almost everything in a jail – lights, toilet fixtures, doors, etc. – costs much more than those same items in an office or school building. However, the cost of a county jail is not limited to the expense of planning and constructing the facility. The costs associated with staffing, maintaining, and operating the facility over its lifespan far exceed the initial costs.
Various studies conducted during the last 30 years have concluded that the life-cycle costs for a jail are as follows:
- 10 percent-12 percent for design and construction;
- 10 percent-15 percent for maintenance; and
- 70 percent-80 percent for operations.
A county faced with the need to build a new jail should research and determine the keys to planning and building a facility that will be safe and secure and that can operate over its lifetime at maximum efficiency with minimum cost. Building a cost-efficient county jail will include looking beyond just the initial construction cost of the facility.
Determine Present Needs and Plan for the Future
Jails last a long time. The properly planned and constructed jail facility should serve the community for more than 30 years. No one recommends that a county should overbuild a jail, but building too small a facility today will result in expensive additions, or even worse, the need to build a replacement jail much sooner than 30 years. This planning begins with choosing a site that will allow the jail and related functions to expand or change in the future.
The jail itself should be designed in such a manner that it can be expanded. Selected areas within the building should be planned to allow for expansion internally. For example, the kitchen might be designed initially to feed 100 inmates, but with a very small investment in additional space it can be expanded internally in the future to feed twice that number.
Construction costs more today than it did 10 to 20 years ago, and we can assume that a jail built today will cost less than a jail built tomorrow; with only very brief exceptions, historically this has always been the case. Once the needs are determined and the decision has been made that a new jail is required, it is very important to establish an efficient planning and construction process.
The greatest cost over the next 30 years will be the operations cost of the jail. Included within operations costs are:
Each uniformed staff position in Texas is currently costing the county an average of $250,000 annually, as the jail operates 24/7, and each full-time staffing position requires five people. Naturally, this cost will vary somewhat between urban/rural, small/large counties, but the effect on any county’s budget remains relevant. The jail design and construction can definitely affect these staffing costs in a very significant way.
In order for the jail to be cost-effective, the jail must be designed to be safe and secure while allowing efficient staffing. The layout of the jail must support this, as well as the use of appropriate technologies.
The movement of prisoners within a jail requires staff. The use of modern technology such as video visitation will greatly reduce the amount of time staff spends on prisoner visitation. The physical arrangement of a jail must allow the staff to separate the inmate population into the required classifications while also providing the ability to safely supervise those inmates. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires a minimum of one staff member per 48 inmates. An inefficiently planned jail can force the county into exceeding the minimum ratio. This additional staff will cost the county every year after the facility has opened.
A cost-efficient jail must be designed and built to accommodate maintenance. Space must be provided to allow necessary equipment to be properly installed and maintained. Because of the nature of the construction itself as well as the occupants, the major equipment components must be located in areas that allow for repair and maintenance without disrupting the operations or compromising the security of the facility. In addition, some of the equipment used will have a shorter lifespan than that of the overall facility and will have to be removed and replaced over time.
Mechanical/Electrical Equipment and Utilities
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings consume approximately 39 percent of the energy and 74 percent of the electricity produced in the United States. In a critical facility such as a jail that operates 24 hours a day 365 days a year, providing mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems that are not only reliable and maintainable, but also energy efficient, can help reduce long-term operating expenses. When constructing a cost-efficient county jail, the selection of these systems should consider initial cost as compared to life-cycle cost.
To acquire an expert’s opinion on these issues, we consulted Michael Smith of MD Engineering in Plano, Texas. Michael has served as an engineer on approximately 30 county jails, and he shared with us the following:
Maintainability – How readily accessible are equipment and components for the equipment in a building that cannot shut down? Maintenance inside a detention environment typically requires additional personnel to escort technicians unless a facility is designed to allow maintenance to be performed without entering the detention facility. In the plumbing system, providing a walk-around chase allows for maintenance to perform plumbing repair while staying outside of inmate-occupied areas.
Life Cycle – In a jail facility, systems need to have estimated life cycles that prevent an owner from large replacement costs several times over the life cycle of the building. Assuming a jail is designed for a life cycle of 50 years, the standard split systems or package units may need to be replaced between 3.5 to 5 times compared to a more expensive hybrid DX or chilled water system that may need to be replaced one time during that same period. The lighting systems also have life-cycle impacts. Simply stated, the LED will outlast traditional lamp sources by almost three times the rated life.
Energy Efficiency – As technology has advanced, it has allowed the MEP systems to advance in areas that increase energy efficiency. HVAC systems can be zoned to allow for reduced run time in areas that are not occupied, or lighting systems in support areas can be placed on sensors that allow them to operate for a specified amount of time or while the area is occupied. This type of technology is becoming standard and therefore more cost effective.
Operating Costs – If requested, most engineers are able to generate operating costs for specific designs. This not only helps compare different systems, but can also help the owner budget future expenses for a new facility.
For more than 30 years we have heard, “Every corner on a jail costs $5,000.” Yet, as we have seen, poor design can add $7.5 million over a 30-year period per staff position. So which is more important? We are not saying that a jail design should be extravagant. The initial construction cost is a very important issue in a county. We are proposing that in the discussion of how to build cost-efficient county jails, there are many issues that should be studied. The correct answer will probably vary from one county to another.