The corrections industry offers plenty of work for contractors

As the population of prison inmates continues to grow, there is a corresponding challenge to design correctional facilities that can be built both quickly and on budget. While the need for electrical contractors to design systems for correctional facilities remains relatively unchanged, the opportunity to install those systems has steadily increased over the past few years.

In a corrections facility, sound is a critical component for the safety and welfare of both employees and inmates. The public address system—used for everything from general paging to emergency announcements—serves as an important communications vehicle to corrections officers, which is critical to behavior management and control.

Manufacturers such as Soundsphere are able to advise the contractor on where speakers should be located to efficiently cover the facility’s needs and advise what to expect in terms of performance, make head end (operating system) or other equipment suggestions and provide necessary wire specifications.

“We work with many correctional facilities in need of sound systems,” said Peter Hamilton, president of Soundsphere, a division of Sonic Systems. “Most electrical contractors generally come to us with specifications for speakers that they need to have installed in a day room or exercise room. Our systems work well in newer correctional facilities. Oftentimes, we suggest how they could utilize the speakers if they don’t come to us with certain specs. We sent speakers to Leavenworth Prison and the Cobb County Jail in Georgia. Most contractors like our speakers because they can be put in the middle of the room and the system covers an entire area.”

In essence, corrections facilities are usually constructed of cement block walls where sound is not absorbed, which could affect speech intelligibility. Multiple loudspeakers spaced apart in such a room worsen the situation by increasing the time delay of previous sound events even further.

“Electrical contractors are newly involved in security now with video announcement systems,” said Joseph DeRosa, director of engineering for Soundsphere. “We are seeing that they are responding to specifications more than actually getting involved in the design/build phase, which are spec’d by architects and designers. Electrical contractors are needed to install emergency paging systems in correctional facilities to get the staff together, increase video surveillance and install two-way communication systems.”

With correctional facilities, one of the highest costs comes from providing security. Determining the extent of a contractor’s role is the first step in the initial designing phase. “I think more and more electrical contractors are becoming involved in the design/build phase of correctional facility work,” said Mark Stark, senior electrical engineer for Capital Electric, Kansas City, Mo., which has designed systems for Leavenworth Prison. “For that project alone, we replaced the switch gear, installed new instruments and expanded the overall existing facility within two months.”

Touchscreen technology has become a cost-effective solution for contractors in controlling virtually all electrical functions from managing access control, intercoms, fire alarms, closed circuit and cable TV, to water, power and lighting distribution.

Technological advances such as touchscreens are ideal for new construction projects, providing additional flexibility and easy-to- use systems. A touchscreen system can also be programmed and tested at the manufacturer’s facility before being transported to a client’s location, which differs dramatically from control panels, which often require both costly installation and testing time.

The touchscreen has many useful features that are simply not available with other control systems. When multiple touchscreens are in use at different locations within a facility, the screen at a location experiencing trouble or an overrun situation can be shut down and all control returned to the master control unit, providing the user has the authorization to do so. A user can also activate a duress button, which will shut down his/her own system and automatically return control to the master control unit. Additionally, all events can be easily archived for historical purposes and reporting.

“I have worked on several projects involving correctional facilities, including the South Desert Correctional Facility in Las Vegas, a maximum security prison in Reno and the Jefferson County Jail in New Jersey,” said Connie Alt, project manager for Sachs Electric in St. Louis. “I was responsible for putting together the electrical package, including lighting, door security and making sure the doors were monitored through a touch screen. I also installed the intercom system between the jail cells and the main office along with the lighting, receptacles in the bathrooms and showers and intercom systems. Electrical contractors have always been involved in correctional facility work, but they work along with detention specialists, who guide the electrical contractor. For example, they may come to us with specs on how they want specific doors to interlock. They are more involved with the electrical contractor than the general contractor is, although we also do quite a bit of work design/build.”

Combining state-of-the art technologies with efficient building designs, correctional facilities are realizing significant cost savings.

“We actually have a bid in right now for a system that we installed at the Jefferson County Jail several years ago,” Alt added. “Our bid was to replace the system that we did 12 years ago, but they haven’t awarded the job yet. I am seeing more and more electrical contractors handling the entire electrical needs of correctional facilities from power and lighting to security and telephone/data systems.”

State-of-the-art efficient security is imperative for correctional facilities today. While more and more institutions are being constructed due to the expanding number of inmates, these correctional facilities require special-order materials such as electronic security devices like infrared motion detectors and special construction methods to meet strict security requirements.

While most correctional facilities are often built under tight budgets, it is important that these facilities are made as secure as possible. Without that, they pose a threat to the community and to those who live in, work at and visit the facility. One example: Officials at the Florida Department of Corrections are looking to expand their use of special technology that protects electronic equipment from lightning damage by detecting strikes before they occur. The rate of strikes in Florida is unusually high and lightning can damage everything from fence sensors to telephone and data lines.

Florida Department of Corrections officials are working with Rabun Labs to install the company’s equipment-protection technology in all the state’s prisons. After sensing a possible strike, the system quickly switches over all equipment to a backup power source, and coax switching units isolate sensitive electronic equipment from the main power grid. In the past, some strikes have destroyed circuit boards and microprocessors on generators.

In a growing new trend, commissioners in Porter County, Ind., have recently contracted with a variety of contractors to maintain electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems within the new Porter County Jail, which opened last year.

As correctional facility managers become increasingly concerned with the efficient operation and maintenance of their facilities, owners of older and new facilities are dealing with costly problems caused by older and inefficient equipment. Building owners are now realizing the potential for operation and maintenance savings from well-designed facilities in order to facilitate high operational and energy performance in their new construction and renovation projects. EC

SPEED is a freelance writer based in Weymouth, Mass. She can be reached at 617.529.2676 or