Architecture + Construction:
Following the civil rights movement of the1960s, state-sponsored de industrialization and sub-urbanization supported white flight and hollowed out urban centers. In 1971, U.S.President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs to intentionally disrupt urban Black communities. Incarceration quickly swelled, and jails and prisons began popping up all over the country, particularly in rural areas that were struggling to replace jobs in waning industries like farming and mining.
By the 1990s, the racist war on drugs and rising crime rates stemming from increased structural inequities had spurred the vilification of Black people in the media and bipartisan consensus on “tough-on-crime” policies. The 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill represented the culmination of these ideologies, dramatically escalating jail and prison expansion by offering states federal subsidies — totaling $9 billion — to enact harsh sentencing laws, including mandatory minimums. Consequently, between 1984 and2005, a new prison or jail was built every 8.5 days in the U.S. 70 percent of which were in rural communities continuing to suffer job loss that eagerly bought into exaggerated promises of economic prosperity.
All the while, jail and prison architects, designers, and contractors raked in billions of dollars.
- $4.6 billionAnnual spending on correctional construction
- >7,000 Correctional facilities across the U.S.
- 277% Jail capacity growth 1970 – 2017
- 907,000Jail beds across the U.S.
Government agencies contract with corporate architects,designers, engineers, and contractors to design, construct, renovate, and maintain prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, and youth facilities.
While correctional facilities are no longer being built with such haste, there is still plenty of business for those who build them. Despite bipartisan efforts to drive down carceral populations in recent years,old and decaying facilities continue to be restored or replaced with larger, more modern structures. Across the country, law enforcement and policy makers alike have extolled the notion of modernization as a means to make prisons and jails more humane, sinking millions and sometimes billions of dollars into projects that do nothing to address the harms of the institutions themselves. And architecture and construction firms are chomping at the bit to design and build this next iteration of cells, boasting of innovation like window slats that allow natural light to pass through. Architects, designers, and contractors that erect prisons and jails eagerly lay the foundation and framework for mass incarceration, literally.
How Much Money is at Stake?
Federal, state, and local governments infuse the correctional construction industry with billions of dollars every year. Government spending on correctional construction peaked at $8.0 billion in 2008 but fell to $4.6 billion by 2018 as public spending constricted after the market crash and the carceral population began to fall. Though some players exited the market amid concerns that it would never bounce back to pre-2008 recession levels, many firms consolidated operations to capitalize on economies of scale and pressed on. Current spending is enough to grow bed capacity every year, particularly in rural jails where debunked economic arguments still control the expansion narrative and architecture, engineering, and construction firms fund sheriff races. In fact, nationally, in the past decade, the jail population has declined by roughly 40,000 while the number of jail beds has climbed by more than 86,000.
Many of the largest correctional constructions projects today are new jails, ranging from $130 million for a county jail in Land O’Lakes, Florida to $8.7 billion for the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City and build four community-based jails in its stead.
What Corporations Are Involved?
Architecture, engineering, and construction firms work hand-in -hand to design and build correctional facilities. The largest architecture players in the market are also some of the nation’s largest firm: HDR and HOK. HDR has designed over 275 correctional facilities and HOK has designed more than 100,000 correctional beds. While there are similarly dominant construction companies, construction contracts are often split among large national corporations and regional firms in order to meet local job creation goals. Still, the largest construction players in the correctional market include Turner Construction Company, Gilbane Building Company, and Hensel Phelps, which together hold roughly 30 percent of the market.
- Turner, a subsidiary of HOCHTIEF, the German company that built public infrastructure for the Nazi party using forced labor, generated $1.4 billion in revenue on prison and jail construction between 2007 and 2012.
- Gilbane boasts of being one of the top five correctional builders for over a decade now.
- HenselPhelps has built nearly 100 million square feet of correctional space.
- Other major players in the field include the Clark Construction Group, which has completed over $4.5 billion in correctional and judicial projects round the country, and McCarthy Building Companies, which was contracted by Los Angeles County in 2019 to build a $2.2 billion new jail until activists forced the county to cancel the project.
A well-designed, humane prison is a perverse fallacy. No number of architectural bells and whistles can change the fact that a more modern cage is still a cage.The average size of a correctional cell — the closest thing to personal space an incarcerated person has and must, at times, still share with one or two others — is not much larger than the size of a parking space. Walls, floors, doors, and gates are constructed with the coldest building materials, an assortment of stone, cement, cinder, iron, and steel. Natural light is limited to what passes through barred windows even in facilities with no outdoor spaces. Toilet and shower stalls are built without doors or curtains. Visit rooms are designed to prohibit contact with loved ones. And all these indignities are explained away with one claim: security. The worst manifestation of this torture architecture is a solitary confinement cell, a box the size of an elevator in which people are confined for 22 to 24 hours per day. On any given day, between 61,000 and 100,000 people nationwide are tortured in solitary, and many will spend weeks, months, years, and even decades in solitary.These cells are designed to remove human contact; a single slot in a metal door serves as the pass through for food, mail, sound, and even light.
The use of solitary confinement in the U.S. has been condemned by the United Nations and human rights organizations for its severe psychological effects,and yet private architects, engineers, and contractors continue to design and build these spaces.In recent years, architecture, engineering, and construction firms have changed their narrative about their role in prison construction, moving from silence to hyperbolic claims that they design facilitiesthat minimize dehumanization and promote rehabilitation. They gloat about wall murals of nature scapes and floor glazing that extends the reach of natural light as they design expansion projects meant to facilitate incarceration.
Everything passes through the slot: mail, clothes, commissary, food, light.”During the 13 years I was incarcerated, I spent three years in solitary confinement in increments of anywhere from three to ten months — all for minor infractions. Solitary is devoid of human contact, and so much more: light, sound, and color. My gray cells had just one interior-facing window with frosted glass. It was the same window through which guards served me the meals that helped me assess whether it was morning or night —breakfast was at 7 a.m. and dinner at 4 p. m. In solitary, it was quiet — so quiet that you could hear your thoughts, your heartbeat, even small animals outside in the yard. I found inspiration any way I could. I read the Bible — the only text I was allowed — at least ten times over the course of my sentence. Other times, I read the ingredients on my toothpaste and the few other products I could have. Desperate for human connection, I shouted through vents to others in my solitary units, forging deep bonds with people whose faces I never saw. When I was younger, I sat in solitary blaming myself with a sense of hostility. As I grew older, those thoughts morphed into anger, and I questioned how such a space could even exist? Who conceived of it ? Who designed it? Who built it? Who condemned me to it?I am home now, but years later, I am still acclimating to life outside. Small spaces like public bathrooms trigger memories of solitary. Nightmares about being incarcerated again sometimes creep into my sleep. Despite it all, hope drives my dedication to criminal justice advocacy. As the National Director of U.S. Prison Programs at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, today, I advocate for an end to solitary confinement and train other solitary survivors to do the same.
Nearly 600 prisons have been built on or in close proximity to Superfund sites, contaminated land zones identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as toxic to human and environmental health and requiring the sustained removal of hazardous materials. The toxins in these locations have been linked to cancer, heart disease, pulmonary disease, birth defects, depression, and tooth decay. Despite decades of environmental justice advocacy originating from inside prisons with the Black Liberation Political Prisoners in the late 1980s, government agencies and complicit architects and contractors continue to build prisons and jails on Superfund sites and other environmentally hazardous areas with blatant disregard for the health and well-being of incarcerated people and correctional staff.
However, fights for environmental safety are starting to see modest returns. In 2015, Escambia County,Florida sought to build a jail on a Superfund site in Pensacola. Advocates successfully demanded a different site, though the county went on to build the jail in a hazardous flood zone. In 2016, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) planned to build a $444 million facility in Whitesburg, Kentucky, located atop an old mine, next to a coal processing plant and sludge pond. After vigorous challenges by incarcerated people and allied advocates, the BOP withdrew its plan for the new facility. While the environmental justice efforts of advocates in these two instances proved successful,many are not. For instance, people incarcerated at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution – Fayette have been exposed to hazardous pollution for decades due to the dumping of millions of tons of coal ash near the prison. Toxic dust filled with mercury, lead, and arsenic runs off into the prison water. Advocates have wrestled for years with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for legal relief but have repeatedly been told that exposure levels are safe, an assertion plainly contradicted by the stories of the ailing people inside.
Architecture, engineering, and construction firms are not just complicit in the building of prisons on toxic land, they also often introduce health hazards through their design and construction. For example, in Texas, where temperatures routinely exceed 100°F, architects, engineers, and contractors designed and built state prisons without air conditioning; 23 people have died from overheating in those facilities. In California, someone died in a correctional medical facility from Legionnaires’ disease caused by bacteria in the building’s water system. The facility was built by McCarthy Building Companies in 2010. By 2016, it was receiving failing grades from the state inspector general. Through their indifference to and exacerbation of environmental hazards in correctional facilities, architecture, engineering, and construction firms have devalued the lives of incarcerated people.
Construction agencies typically consider several factors when deciding whether to build a new or replacement facility: overcrowding, dilapidation, need for specialized services, economic impact, job creation, and revenue opportunities. However, jail and prison construction has not always panned out as expected. In fact, in many cases, it has been a financial sinkhole for taxpayers — and windfall for architects, engineers, and contractors — with projects running over in cost and time estimates even with the grossly underpaid labor of incarcerated people. For instance, a recent prison project in Salt Lake City, Utah, a joint venture between Layton Construction and Oakland Construction, ran 18 months behind schedule and 20 percent over its original $650 million budget. In Santa Barbara, California, a new jail build that was originally estimated to cost $77 million and slated for completion in the spring of 2019 culminated in a lawsuit against contractor Rosser International after it went out of business in the summer of 2019 and abandoned the project what it was only 80 percent completed and nearly 40 percent over budget. And in Eureka, California, the construction of a youth jail was due to be completed in 2018, but a year past the due date, the county was forced to release the contractor, Hal Hays Construction, for failure to make adequate progress and go after its bond agent, Western Surety Company, to demand the project be completed.
These projects only scratch the surface of the fiscal waste in the construction of cages for incarcerated people that has diverted billions of tax dollars from the community investments in education, mental health care, substance use treatment, affordable housing, and restorative justice. Contractors extract all the goods stuff from the land, then they sell it to waste companies that contaminate the land, and then they sell it to prisons. Then they start shipping inmates there, and people start getting sick.
Maintenance Construction firms are not just contracted for new construction projects, but also for renovations and simple maintenance projects. While the firms contracted by government agencies for these projects are often smaller,local firms, their role is nevertheless critical to the upkeep on facilities — which is often questionable at best. In fact, the staff at these corporations regularly see the atrocity of conditions in our nation’s prisons and jails, and yet they do little more than the bare minimum to keep their walls standing. Notably, much like they do with new construction projects, these corporations often use prison labor to complete contracted work, allowing them to save on staffing costs and increase their profit margins on even small projects.
Incarcerated people are also employed directly by facilities to do everyday grounds maintenance from painting walls to mowing the grass. Maintenance jobs are actually the most common jobs offered to incarcerated people without whom facilities simply could not operate. While architects, engineers, and contractors masquerade as reformists and claim to design better and more humane facilities, human rights advocates have seen through their guises.No matter how much natural light reflects off a polyurethane floor or how many beautiful nature scapes are painted on visit room walls, a building designed to cage and hide people will not address the divestment from Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities that feeds mass incarceration or heal the mass trauma caused further perpetuated by it. Social justice architect Raphael Sperry explains that communities do not need “better prison design,but better community design, and especially funding for community development.”
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