Decoding Design

Bad design in jails can hurt workers, inmates

Bad design in jails can hurt workers, inmates

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At the Oklahoma County Detention Center, a poorly designed jail makes moving, guarding and caring for inmates very difficult. But it also endangers jail employees.

Prison and jail overcrowding is a crisis not just in California, but across the country. And it can exacerbate other issues, which arise from poor prison design.

We're not talking about poor fen shui. We're talking about design that endangers guards, other workers and prisoner alike -- both in terms of their security and health. For an example, look to the Oklahoma County Detention Center in Oklahoma City.

As The Oklahoman reports, the poor design of the facility poses logistical and management problems that create safety issues for guards and create an environment that limits inmates' movements and access to things like healthcare, exercise and worship.

One of the chief issues is the fact that the facility is 13 stories in height, which makes it very difficult and labor-intensive to move inmates around the building, since they need to rely on series of elevators.

Another problem is the cell configuration. Each cell is arranged such that jailers can't see the entire space -- even if they try to look through the cell's window, since the portals are too small. That means multiple inmates in single cells could conspire outside of their jailers' view.

That also means a jailer can't see the entire cell before he or she steps inside. And many parts of the building have drop ceilings, with tiles that can be pushed in, serving as an ideal place to hide weapons or contraband.

The facility's medical unit, which is on the top floor, is also cramped, with an examining room and administrative offices in the same small space.

For inmates, the jail's design precludes physical activity. They eat inside their cells and have limited room or time for exercise. The building also lacks a chapel.

A fan is used to ventilate a cell where a female inmate is in labor.

The building's ventilation problems aren't up to commercial standards, or even jail or prison standards, as evidenced by a fan being used to force air into a cell in which a pregnant inmate was recently going through labor.

County Sheriff John Whetsel attributes the problems to an inexperienced building contractor that lacked the expertise needed to design an effective, safe jail.

Oklahoma County and the U.S. Department of Justice agreed three years ago that resources should be devoted to fixing these problems, identified by federal monitors. And while some problems due to overcrowding has been fixed, the County Sheriff says the building really needs a major design overhaul to address the core issues.

Structural limitations still problem for county jail [The Oklahoman]

Photos: Top image by Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman; fan and cell door by David McDaniel, The Oklahoman

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure