Reduce Prison Operating Costs Through Improved Unit Design and Electronic Security Devices

The state should reduce prison operating costs through improved unit design and installation of electronic security devices, which would reduce reliance on staff for security requirements.

Since 1987, Texas has engaged in a major cap ital expansion of its prison capacity. When all construction that has been approved to date is completed, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) will maintain more than 93,000 prison and substance abuse treatment beds. Between 1982 and 1992, the p rison population grew from about 33,000 to more than 50,000 offenders. Inmate population is expected to surpass 80,000 in 1994 and will increase to more than 100,000 offenders by 1997. 1

TDCJ is responsible for operating 46 prisons. Of those, four are managed by private companies. Existing plans call for the construction of 25,812 regular prison beds and 12,000 drug treatment beds by the end of fiscal 1995. 2

The department s current capital plans include three prototypes: a 2,250-bed maximum-security unit, a 1,000 bed medium/minimum security prison and a substance abuse facility with capacity for either 500 or 1,000 offenders. 3

The prototype for the maximum-security unit has been used by the department since 1987. Similar units, with modifications, have been opened in Gatesville, Amarillo, Beeville and Abilene, and more are planned for completion by late 1995.

By 1995, the department will have 22,500 new maximum-security beds in units less than ten years old. That figure does not include maximum-security capacity in older units and will represent 21 percent of the department s total prison capacity.

Estimated construction cost of each 2,250 bed maximum-security unit is approximately $73 to $80 million, depending on each one s requirements. The department s annual operating cost of these units is projected at $21 to $22 million, plus an additional $11 million in fringe benefits, educational programs, medical costs, depreciation and interest. 4

Texas officials and correctional planners throughout the nation favor maintaining a design prototype for building prisons. The advantages of a prototype include expedited design and construction timetables and a reduction in design costs. Staff become fami liar with a prototype, which minimizes start-up and training problems.

Planners, however, also must recognize that the prison population is changing. Younger, more violent offenders are entering prison, and as inmates receive longer sentences, there is a gradual aging of the inmate population. Alcohol and substance abuse and mental illness place increasing demands on individual units. Rapidly changing health problems, such as AIDS and tuberculosis, often place unforeseen demands on the system. In many cases the shifts and changes were not predicted five to ten years ago . Recognizing the volume and nature of change, any commitment to a prototype should be limited to no more than three years.

Beyond the changing inmate population, new technology and management practices can help the department gain efficiencies when designing new units. For example, electronic perimeter security systems, which were unavailable or unproven when the prototype was established in 1987, can now be purchased.

National design guidelines recommend a capacity of no more than 500 inmates, primarily because programs at facilities of that size can be conducted on a secure and manageable scale. 5 As the population exceeds 500, it becomes harder to maintain a safe environment. Some states and the federal government have clustered two or more facilities on the same site with each maintaining about 500 beds. This design reduces operating costs because of the economies of scale and the sharing of certain functions.

A review of state prison construction showed that most states have moved away from building units with more than 1,000 beds because they are difficult to manage and are not cost effective, regardless of the states prison requirements. 6 While Texas and California have invested major resources in building large prisons, few other states are doing the same. The Federal Bureau of Prisons maintains large campus sites with several self-contained units operating independently and sharing suppo rt services.

A review of the new Beeville unit shows a low technology approach to prison construction. The un it requires a staff of about 800, including 525 security personnel. It has a double fence system with three perimeter towers, which requires about 15 full-time staff and a mobile patrol, which travels the perimeter in motor vehicles.

Since the 1970s, electronic perimeter detection systems have been available. When properly operated, these devices can alert staff to any breach of the perimeter. While in the early years of use, many systems were not judged effective because of poor plann ing, equipment maintenance issues and insufficient testing. However, recent experience and research has resulted in an improved understanding of how to use such products, as well as better technology. 7

The Beeville unit also does not use cameras or closed circuit television to supplement visual observation within the perimeter, which could reduce staff requirements. Body alarms also have been developed that enable staff to summon help quickly. While TDCJ uses two-way, hand-held radios for some staff, personal alarms at Beeville could facilitate staff redeployment in the unit.

Computers are used only on a limited basis at the Beeville unit, whereas they could help reduce the workload of staff in areas such as roster control, inmate count, key control and locating inmate housing.

While the architectural review of the 2,250-bed prototype was limited to assessing available drawings of the Beeville unit and a single on-site visit, several issues warrant attention in future planning and in efforts to reduce operating costs. The camp us system is based on the premise that a secure and adequate perimeter allows a reasonable level of open movement between buildings. Such movement is designed to occur primarily in a central core that can easily be observed by all unit staff.

The Texas 2,250 bed prototype fails to accomplish that goal for two reasons. The buildings are positioned in a way that does not allow easy observation of inmates moving between buildings, and the design incorporates a system of limited, above-ground walkw ays which ch annel and contain the movement in corridor fashion. This design is staff-intensive and limits line-of-sight controls. Alternatively, the same number of buildings could have been placed on the exterior of an inner courtyard which would allow greater securit y and less staff-intensive observation of movement.

The use of three perimeter towers at an estimated operating cost of $350,000 per year should be reassessed. A major line-of-sight deficiency exists and full observation is not possible. Placing an interi or tower in the center of the complex could reduce the need for one or more exterior towers. Also placing one or more towers at varying heights could reduce the need for some or all of the towers. Using electronic detection systems could reduce, if not eli minate, the need for towers.

The exterior shape of some of Beeville s housing units, which include multiple corners and blind spots, could be flattened in a way to improve visual observation of inmate and staff movement, thereby reducing correctional officers workload.

While the analysis of the prototype did not include a full review of inmate population characteristics, the need for administrative segregation capacity should be continually reviewed to ensure that the state does not overbuild. While the department should have enough space to separate and control the most troublesome inmates, it appears that the prototype plan, if fully implemented, could cause an imbalance between segregation and maximum-security space.

As a system-wide guide, most correctional professionals accept that 5 to 15 percent of a correctional systems population requires maximum security. About one-third can be placed in minimum security with the remainder needing medium security. 8

If the TDCJ fully implements its construction plans by 1996, 21 percent of the department s total capacity will be maximum-security space constructed within ten years. That figure does not include maximum-security space already in existence in units built before 1987.

A. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice s (TDCJ) planning unit should reassess its long-term administrative segregation and maximum-security requirements. At the least, one maximum-security prison should be redesigned as a medium-security prison.

This would enable the department to determine and confirm the projections relating to the percentage of inmates who will require special housing. The analysis should document reasons, if any, why Texas should have a significantly different distribution of security levels th an other states.

B. The Legislature should require that TDCJ review its design prototypes every three years and consider adjustments to incorporate new technologies and cost-saving improvements.

C. The department should incorporate electronic technology to reduce staff costs. Alternatively, the department should consider establishing an internal observation tower to reduce the number of exterior towers required.

D. Within the context of the existing prototype, the department should examine the feasibility of creating a true campus plan interior which increases visibility and reduces reliance on covered walkways. The department should be encouraged to flatten the exterior surfaces of housing buildings in a way to improve visibility and reduce blind spots.

E. The department should examine the feasibility of further using closed circuit camera technology to improve visual observation of buildings and inmate movements. Removing perimeter blind spots should be the highest priority.

F. To achieve the anticipated savings to general revenue, the Legislature should reduce the TDCJ appropriation by the recommended amount.

These recommendations have targeted only the 2,250-bed prototype prison unit. Although not studied during this review, it can be assumed that similar opportunities for improvements, costs savings and design modifications can be found in the 1,000 bed proto types and in most existing prisons (although perhaps not with the same cost/benefit).

The administrative segregation se ctions of the 2,250-bed prototypes are where camera technology can be initially introduced, because the intense level of staffing results in the highest personnel costs in a prison unit. For example, camera monitors can easily achieve a 10 percent reductio n in work force at the 2,250-bed prototype unit.

Fiscal Impact
For every planned maximum-security bed that could be replaced with a new medium-security bed, the state could save $10,000. On a 2,250-bed unit, the amount saved would be $22.5 million in gene ral obligation bonds, which would not have to be issued. The estimated annual operating savings, at a minimum, would be more than $2,100 per bed changed from maximum to medium security. 9

To the extent that the department could convert to electronic intrusion detection systems for perimeter security, the state could realize a manpower savings of about $700,000 per unit, per year. Applied to the ten prototype 2,250-bed units, the savings cou ld exceed $7 million annually.

Introducing cameras to monitor inmate movement throughout each prototype unit could reasonably yield a $300,000 to $340,000 staffing savings per year.

The initial investment required to install the technological improvements would be substantial, although much less in the yet-to-be-built units than in existing prison units. While determining the actual capital costs associated with design and installatio n of the electronic perimeter would require a detailed site analysis, an estimated one-time capital investment of $825,000 to $1,050,000 would be required. Also, each tower eliminated would reduce construction costs by about $50,000. 10

Based on limited review of closed circuit television options and discussions with security equipment vendors, it is estimated that an effective monitoring system could be installed in the administrative segregation buildings of the 2,250-bed units for less than $500,000 each in existing units and $350,000 in planned units. 11

Savings to the Net Saving/(Cost)
Fiscal General Revenue to General Change
Year Fund 001 Obligation Bonds in FTEs

1994 $ 770,000 $(3,975,000) -33
1995 3,946,000 17,940,000 -141
1996 8,639,000 (2,865,000) -314
1997 10,529,000 0 -395
1998 10,529,000 0 -395

1 Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Budget and Management Services, Four Year Construction Plan (Huntsville, Texas, June 12, 1992),
p. 6.
2 Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Future Capacity (Huntsville, Texas, March 18, 1992).
3 Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Request for Proposal: Site for Locations of New Facilities for TDCJ (Huntsville, Texas, September 1991), pp. 1-3.
4 Texas Department of Criminal Justice-Institutional Division, Financial Statements, FY 1992 (Huntsville, Texas, September 1992).
5 American Correctional Association, Design Guide for Secure Adult Correctional Institutions (College Park, Maryland, 1983).
6 Senate Interim Committee on Criminal Justice, Report to the 73rd Texas Legislature (Austin, Texas, November 1992).
7 American Correctional Association.
8 Ibid.
9 Interview with Nancy Arrigona, Analyst, Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, Austin, Texas, January 4, 1993.
10 Interview with Mark Corrigan, Prison Consultant, Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 30, 1992.
11 Ibid.