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Bunker Construction

May 7, 2012

 December 10, 2010

A Reform Essay


By Davin Douma

             The first time I really thought about it was in the visiting room.  My father had come to see me and we were talking about an article in the paper.  The room was packed, the noise just bearable, and at the next table was a crying baby.  If you’ve ever been in a prison visiting room you know what I’m saying.  Anyway, the subject of prison construction came up.  A state senator had been lamenting the cost of building a new prison.  Sixty million dollars is a lot of money for place that only houses fifteen hundred men.  Think about it, sixty million is a fortune by any standard.

            I happen to live in a prison that houses around fifteen hundred men so when I went back to my cell I started looking and thinking.  The walls are pre-stressed concrete reinforced with steel.  The door and window frame are steel and the glass is three inches thick and would easily stop a bullet.  The sink and toilet are metal and so cold they make your rectum contract.  The cell I was living in was typical of all the cells I had ever lived in.  There was nothing special about it except maybe its cost of around forty thousand dollars to build.

            The following week I went to the prison library and looked up prisons in an encyclopedia.  There were pictures of prisons that had been built a hundred years ago that looked just like the place I was living in.  According to the encyclopedia the first prison in the country was built in 1790, and it was the same too.  The old joints were stone and mortar, the new are concrete and steel.  In over two hundred years nothing had really changed.  Prison cells still looked like bunkers.  With all the modern technology available why were we still building things the same way?

            There is this idea in corrections that cells have to be built like bunkers so that prisoners can’t tear them up of break out of them.  Maximum and medium security prisons, where most states house their felons, all look essentially the same.  This idea makes sense in the event all prisoners behave alike, but in reality they don’t.  The trouble-makers in prison, the men who destroy their cells, prey on others, and are generally a pain in the ass, make up less then twelve percent of the population.  This is a proven statistic.  Even if you add some leeway just to be safe, fifteen percent is about all you really have to worry about.

            That number, fifteen percent, is important because it tells us how many bunker-like cells we need.  More importantly, if tells us how many we don’t need.  Eighty-five percent of the prison population doesn’t have to be housed in forty-thousand dollar cells.  That is something of a revelation if you pay attention to it.  It means that the vast majority of prisoners can be housed in structures utilizing conventional construction.  The cost of such a cell is only a few thousand dollars when utilizing modular designs and methods.  Instead of building a prison that costs sixty million dollars we could build one that only costs nine million and does the same job.  And the cost saving don’t end there.

            In a bunker style prison there is a lot of supervision.  We have to pay a lot of people to keep an eye on the prisoners because they might do something we wouldn’t like.  But, when you separate out the bad fifteen percent you don’t need that same level of supervision.  Prisoners who are essentially docile can be managed with one third the level of supervision.  In fact, eighty five percent of the population will manage itself if you set up the prisons properly.  Manpower is typically eighty-five percent of your cost when it comes to running prison.  A prison where the bad apples have been weeded out can be operated on one third the budget or less.

            Its one thing to say you can build and run a prison cheaper, but another thing to do it.  Are there any examples that have use this model?  Actually there are.  If you look at the prisoner of war camps the United States built during World War Two you will have one example.  Both the US and our allies built POW camps and housed thousands upon thousands of prisoners.  We did it here and in Europe and had very few problems.  In fact, when you consider that those facilities housed some of the best trained soldiers in the world, German SS troops, soldiers who had been trained to cause problems and escape, the designs were actually very successful.  Surely those facilities would be adequate for simple criminals.

            Today we could build those same kinds of facilities that would be even more secure.  Today we have motion detectors, electric fences, surveillance cameras, coiled razor wire, etc.  It’s important to remember that it is the perimeter fence that keeps prisoners inside.  Part of the old idea with bunker designs was to make cells escape proof.  But prisoners who attempt to escape from prisons don’t try and escape from cells.  They wait until they are outside their cells to make the attempts.  It isn’t the cell that is the real protection for society, it is the perimeter fence line.  POW camps had men in gun towers with machine guns to guard the perimeter.  We still do that today, but we can reinforce the line with modern technology and make it even more secure.

            Building and operating more cost effective prisons is not that difficult once you get beyond the tired mentality that has been doing the job for decades.  Corrections, like any other profession, gets stuck in ruts and patterns that people fail to recognize.  We sometimes think the only way to do something is the way it has been done.  Especially if we are invested in the old ways and don’t want to change.  In America we build nuclear reactors, planes that fly into space, and computers that can do billions of calculations a second.  Surely we can build a better prison.  I haven’t even touched on the benefits of rehabilitation when we separate out the bad apples.  It isn’t rocket science.  We just have to do a better job.

copyright 2010

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