Hugh D. Lester has providing planning, design, or consulting for over fifty jurisdictions, including the design of three of the four largest jails in the United States. He is currently a doctoral student in Sociotechnical Systems at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He can be contacted at

Figure 1: Cool Hand Luke (Warner Bros. Entertainment, 1967)

Figure 1: Cool Hand Luke (Warner Bros. Entertainment, 1967)

What we've got here… …is failure… …to communicate. Some men… …you just can't reach.

 This is what was running through my head as I toured a penal farm in Mississippi. Could anyone blame me? As lead designer for a national justice firm—teaming with a local architect to design its replacement—I’d never seen conditions of confinement that bad.

Flash forward six years and a Bureau of Justice Statistics email arrives enumerating the lowest incident jails for sexual harassment and abuse in the United States. To my shock and amazement, my Mississippi facility is hands down the best. It’s not an unconditional pardon, but a reprieve; a stay of execution.

Jail designers seek the optimum balance between safety, security, and maintainability without compromising detention operations. While jail design is important, policies, procedures, and post orders determine the extent to which officers remain mobile versus fixed, how units are staffed, how regular or random visual cell checks are, and how frequently they are conducted. Orientation to issues like staff-detainee communication, proactive goal-directed engagement versus tacit acceptance of negative outcomes, and other factors critical to safe, secure, and constitutional conditions of confinement is also traceable to policies, procedures, and post orders.

The Mississippi project taught me that institutional culture is the primary driver of outcomes, not architecture. Factors beyond my control had forced me to design a jail that would only have positive outcomes if the organization actively pursued them. Whether they do… …was—and still is—completely beyond my control.

Design for maintenance—in the traditional sense of the word—can improve security and safety, but design (for maintenance) of organizational culture is even more critical if negative outcomes are to be mitigated.

Furthermore, the larger culture needs to be transformed. Issues faced by jails should be 'top of mind' with the public. Public information campaigns that stress the legal requirement to provide safe, secure and constitutional detention would serve to counteract typical depictions of jails in popular culture—as places of violence, rape, death in custody, and the like—instead of the prevailing reality of boredom, lives squandered, and failure to 'turn people around' due to lack of resources.

Given adequate resources and robust organizational culture, prevailing security-centric mindsets might be transformed into a culture of care and custody that would have a chance of changing hearts and minds. It happened in Mississippi before I even arrived. It could happen elsewhere.

Nonetheless, there’s no escaping the need to provide maintenance access in jails. Almost every jailbreak story involves desperate men shimmying through impossibly small pipe chases after hours of patient work defeating that first security barrier—the one between the cell and the chase. The cell remains the most interior security zone in any jail, and is square one with respect to the safety and security of facilities. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, but we long ago gave up the practice of chaining prisoners to the wall of their cells.

Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, in their report On the Penitentiary System of the United States and its Application in France (1833) described one Ohio prison as a place where, “…prisoners of every variety of character [were] indiscriminately associated, [the prisoners,] as might naturally be expected, [spent much of their time] in mutual contamination and in devising plans of escape.” [1]

Later prison reformers, such as the Boston Prison Discipline Society, argued that “There are principles in architecture, by the observance of which great moral changes can be more easily produced among the most abandoned of our race… Other things being equal, the prospect of improvements in morals depends, in some degree, upon the construction of buildings.” [2] While this sentiment represents significant overreach, the public’s default to deterrence via punitive conditions of confinement is misguided. Rehabilitation must be built upon humane conditions of confinement and high expectations for both detainee and staff behavior. Certain conditions help create that foundation.

Safe, secure, and constitutional detention occurs when a jail assures … that both staff and detainees are safe…” and that “…both its physical plant and policies and procedures…” conform to constitutional standards. [3] The ‘secure’ test is clear. Being ‘safe’ requires not only that staff are safe from detainees, but that detainees are safe from each other, and from staff. [4] This is profoundly difficult for jail designers.

For conditions of confinement to be ‘constitutional,’ they need to be backed up by case law. In a typical instance, correctional practices challenged in Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 US 337 (1981) were declared unconstitutional by the District Court, but were then reversed by the Supreme Court, establishing case law legitimating the original practice. [5] French v. Owens, 777 F.2d 1250 (1985) established the totality of the correctional environment as the prime determinant of whether conditions of confinement violate the eighth or fourteenth amendments. [6] For jail designers, the American Correctional Association (ACA) physical plant standards for jails guarantee conformance to professional standards of care, as these are supported by case law.

ACA standards only require "a view of the cell front," [7] so security within the unit, not within the cells, is the professional standard of care. Staff stations cannot generally be located to maximize views into all the cells accessed from a dayroom. Cell fronts vary widely in their percentage of opacity versus transparency and views into cells are less than optimal. As a matter of fact, maintenance access directly impacts this issue, especially in the case of the ubiquitous Y-shaped chase.

With Y-shaped chases, cell doors alone provide views. Even when these doors are extensively glazed, views are compromised. Maintenance impacts operations because detainees must be locked down in their cells, since chases are accessed from the dayroom side. Not so with rear chase designs. Access is outside the secure perimeter, and can occur at any time without impacting jail operations. Resulting cell fronts [Figure 4] provide much better views into cells. Unfortunately, unit footprints increase, increasing costs. In any case, cell design for maintenance access is a telling factor.

Operational breakthroughs in inmate behavior management [8] build upon advances in jail design, at least where they are implemented and can be sustained. In one Mississippi jail, though, organizational culture is transcendent. No matter what happens, I know my design either enabled—or failed to inhibit—those outcomes, and that makes all the difference.



[1] Roberts, John W. 1996. Reform and Retribution: An Illustrated History of American Prisons. Baltimore, Md.: United Book Press, 81.

[2] Rothman, David J. 1995. Perfecting the Prison: United States, 1789-1865. In The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, Ed. Norval Morris & David J. Rothman. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 117.

[3] Lester, Hugh D. 2004. Correctional Facility Architecture: Past, Present, and Future—Part I. American Jails, 18(3): 28.

[4] Ibid, 28.

[5] Thomas, Clarence. 2009. Dissenting Opinion: Hudson v. McMillian (1992). In Prison, Ed. Noel Merino. Farmington Mills, Mi.: Greenhaven Press, 76.

[6] Selke, William L. 1993. Prisons in Crisis. Bloomington, In. and Indianapolis, In.: Indiana University Press, 36-40.

[7] American Correctional Association, Division of Standards and Accreditation. 1991. Standards for Adult Local Detention Facilities, 3rd Edition. Washington, D.C.: St. Mary’s Press, 32.

[8] Hutchinson, Virginia. 1980. Managing Inmate Behavior in Jails. Corrections Today, 67(5): 28-30.

[9] Warner Bros. Entertainment. 1967. After beating Luke to the ground, the Captain delivers the quote "What we got here is failure to communicate." Retrieved 5/6/16.

[10] Lester, Hugh D. 1998-2016. Photographs for Figures 2, 3, & 4.