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The American criminal justice system encompasses a wide array of court facilities, jails, prisons and other sites at all levels of government. For every judge, clerk, prosecutor, inmate, corrections officer, family member and other stakeholder, corresponding facilities are needed to support legal and correctional operations. 

A growing population in what is sometimes called our “incarceration nation” is sending a signal for more infrastructure to support the trend. According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative, the American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails and 80 Indian Country jails. Add to this list military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals and prisons in the U.S. territories. 

Despite efforts at the state, local and federal levels to implement criminal justice reform measures, the overall number of facilities is likely to increase rather than decrease as overcrowding and other problems caused by correctional facilities bursting at the seams take their toll. 

Public sector contractors are engaging specialized teams to deliver state-of-the art modernizations throughout the country to meet both structural and human demands.


Technology always has been and will continue to be a key requirement for almost any courthouse, prison or correctional facility project. High-quality installation of security components is paramount in this sector.

“Courthouses are looking for enhanced security while still being welcoming to the public,” states Brent Helmandollar, regional director of planning for the eastern division of Hensel Phelps in Tysons Corner, Virginia. “Some features we’ve been implementing include blast resistance, access control and greater separation between detainees and the general public. In the courtrooms, they want clear sightlines and the latest in audiovisual technology (monitors) in jury boxes.”

In addition to the physical security of access, municipalities and government agencies are investing more in technology for communications and data storage. 

“We’re seeing an increased need for technology in courtrooms: electronic files and audiovisual systems, as well as enhanced wireless communication. We hire specialty contractors early in the process to assist during the design phase with security electronics and AV,” explains Rebecca Ozols, vice president of growth and strategy for Bell & Associates Construction, headquartered in Brentwood, Tennessee. 

Courts often hold preliminary hearings via video conferencing. Visitation for high-risk and high-security defendants is likewise trending toward remote communications. 

In prisons, technology helps to control access and egress as well as monitor visitors. “Prisons are increasing the use of video visitation to reduce the flow of the public in secure areas,” Ozols says. “This lowers the demand of monitoring duties for officers and facility staff. Many prisons are also adding wireless access points to immediately transmit data from police vehicles upon their arrival to reduce intake time.”

For court and justice facilities, integrating technology into a project can be challenging. “With courthouses, one of the biggest challenges we face is systems integration,” says Tony Gallivan, senior vice president for Clark Construction, Tampa, Florida. “A courthouse has numerous systems, including fire alarm, smoke control, AV, lighting and security. Getting these systems to talk to one another can be difficult—especially when each system has its own programming requirements. 

“We have found that having offsite programmers come to the jobsite to interact with one another and solve problems collaboratively, rather than working remotely, is an effective solution,” Gallivan says.

However, because surveillance technology requires frequent upgrades, current installations may be short-lived. Architects and contractors will need to balance efficiency with affordability when it comes to accommodating new technology. Government officials don’t want the daily drumbeat of justice operations and procedures to be disrupted by renovation and construction activity, so systems will need to be designed for seamless changeouts. 


State-of-the-art healthcare is another major component of today’s correctional centers. Incorporating dental, medical and mental health facilities within the corrections compound creates self-sufficiency and removes the need for corrections officers to transport inmates and detainees in a secure vehicle to public hospitals and medical centers nearby. 

Bell & Associates, for example, is currently serving as design-builder for the Downtown Detention Center and Behavioral Care Center, a new high-rise facility in Nashville, Tennessee. The facility will include an 810-bed housing unit (including 60 medical beds), a medical unit, kitchen and laundry facilities, as well as various Davidson County Sherriff Office program components (intake and processing facilities, an administrative space and a visitation area). To reduce the overall project schedule, the new facility is utilizing fully finished prefabricated steel inmate cells.

“We’ve recently had government owners request improved medical service offerings, such as better dental, dialysis, imaging and mental healthcare options,” Ozols says. “By increasing access to these services, owners hope to reduce recidivism and improve inmate care.”

BELL also served as the construction manager at-risk for Nashville’s Metro Detention Facility expansion to create a 256-bed housing unit that is divided into four pods, each of which includes a dayroom, showers and secure recreation areas. The project provided staff offices and program rooms in addition to dental exam and treatment rooms. It was designed and constructed to achieve LEED Silver Certification. 

BELL has completed 29 prisons and justice facilities, and it is currently working on three others. In July, it completed the Bedford County Justice Complex in Shelbyville, Tennessee, which consists of a justice center, sheriff’s office and 415-bed jail.

Another contractor meeting healthcare demands in this sector is Hensel Phelps, which recently completed a $136 million design-build project at the DeWitt Nelson Correctional Annex in Stockton, California. Its scope of work included converting an existing facility into space for worker housing, programming, healthcare and other services for inmates who have the most severe and long-term needs.

In addition to medical facilities, contractors and subcontractors must be ready to perform significant concrete work to build and reinforce cells, install or repair flooring and roofing, and construct support facilities such as kitchens, chapels, lobbies and office spaces. Construction of youth detention wings is another growing requirement on prison campuses.

Utilizing a design-build delivery method and focusing on relationships enables Hensel Phelps to better deliver on owners’ requests. “We create a formal partnering charter and process to ensure a strong partnership with the owner, end-users and stakeholders, as well as our design-build partners,” Helmandollar explains. 

“The challenges for corrections and courthouses include ensuring the safety of the employees while meeting budget constraints,” he says. “Often there are competing priorities. Engineering the security and blast resistance, as well as incorporating modern AV and IT integration, can also be challenging.”

In some cases, the facility construction plays a role in preparing inmates for re-entry to society. “Some correctional facilities now have large kitchens, which are equipped with commercial ovens, stoves—even a bakery,” Gallivan says. “The kitchens aren’t just used to feed inmates, but to provide a training facility to improve skills in the culinary arts. Some facilities will partner with a local community college or culinary school to provide skills-based training that inmates can leverage to gain employment once out of prison.” 

For contractors, the criminal justice market sector continues to create demand for construction projects of all types. Their challenge will be sifting through requests for proposals and cutting through governmental red tape. It will mean preserving façades and historical architecture; constructing new, expansive prisons with enhanced security; incorporating comprehensive onsite health care; and installing new, sophisticated technology that often evolves faster than the progress of construction. 

This nuanced type of construction requires smart firms dedicated to creating and preserving public icons that not only bring justice but help enforce it. 


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