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Prison-Proof Design

Correctional facilities bring a unique set of challenges.


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October 1, 2014 by ROD YEOH

The first requirement for the design of plumbing systems within a correctional facility, no matter what type, is the need to ensure that systems are heavy duty and robust enough to withstand a lot of abuse.
The first requirement for the design of plumbing systems within a correctional facility, no matter what type, is the need to ensure that systems are heavy duty and robust enough to withstand a lot of abuse.

In Canada, the administration of adult correctional services is a shared responsibility between the federal and provincial/territorial governments. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011, there were an average of 163 000 adult offenders in the correctional system at any given time. In the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 2.2 million adults were incarcerated in federal and state correctional facilities at year end of 2011.

In order to house these offenders, correctional facilities of varying types are required, and they present a number of unique challenges in their design and construction. The first challenge is the different types of correctional facilities, ranging from state or provincial to federal, from minimum to maximum and even super-max security. Additionally, you need different facilities to house adult males, females and juveniles. For obvious reasons, these different types of offenders have to be housed separately and have differing requirements.

Even within a specific correctional facility, there are varying requirements. Standard cells have different requirements than isolation cells and segregation units have different requirements than those in general population.

What does all this mean for a mechanical engineer or plumbing designer? Having worked on various correctional facilities, including the first LEED Gold certified correctional facility in Canada, I can say that it means that we have to be very knowledgeable about the differing requirements. We also have to be flexible in order to deal with different and changing theories or strategies on how to deal with the unique challenges within a correctional facility. The key is to listen to the experts – the correctional officers and maintenance personnel that deal with the issues on a day-to-day basis.

The first requirement for the design of plumbing systems within a correctional facility, no matter what type, is the need to ensure that systems are heavy duty and robust enough to withstand a lot of abuse. The first rule is to locate all equipment and services in areas that are not accessible to inmates.

If any plumbing fixture, equipment, or accessory must be located in an inmate accessible area, it must be specifically designed to be tamper and vandal proof. As you can imagine, inmates in correctional facilities do not generally have good impulse control or they would not be there in the first place and tend to damage or vandalize anything they can.

Heavy duty penal/institutional fixtures are available from various manufacturers, and must be chosen to suit the specific use. One interesting thing to note, anecdotally, is that female inmates are much less likely to damage plumbing fixtures in their own cells than males. I guess women are smarter and realize that they are the ones that suffer if they cannot go to the bathroom.

One other consideration is the ability for water closets and associated drainage piping to handle large objects being flushed down them. Basically, inmates tend to use the toilets as garbage cans, drink coolers, laundry facilities, or as a means to dispose of contraband. They sometimes even use it as a toilet.

It is very common for inmates to flush whatever they can down the toilet. Studies done in San Quentin State Prison in California showed that inmates flushed their toilets between 35-65 times a day. The prison cafeteria either needs to serve less coffee, or the inmates are not just using the toilet as a toilet.

In many cases, they flush repeatedly or will flush blankets, clothing, etc., in an attempt to clog their toilets and cause flooding and disruption. With pretty much every aspect of their lives controlled and scheduled, the operation of the in-cell plumbing fixtures is the only control inmates have and they often abuse this control.

“…inmates tend to use the toilets as garbage cans, drink coolers, laundry facilities, or as a means to dispose of contraband. They sometimes even use it as a toilet.”

As mentioned above, not only does the toilet itself need to be able to handle anything that is flushed, so does the drainage system. This is usually accomplished by oversizing the drainage piping and by installing multiple traps, screens and cleanouts, which are accessible by operations personnel outside of inmate areas. Sewage grinder pumps (or muffin monsters, which is a brand name that is used to refer to grinder pumps in general, similar to Kleenex for facial tissues) are also installed to handle anything that makes it past the traps and cleanouts.

With buildings now moving towards sustainability, the need to be able to deal with this heavy use of toilets must be balanced with the need to reduce water consumption. Obviously, if an inmate flushes the toilet up to 65 times a day, this can result in large amounts of water being wasted. However, you cannot simply install low flow toilets, as you need larger volumes of water to ensure the fixture and pipes do not clog. One possible solution is the use of controls to limit the number of flushes. Controls can be installed to monitor the water systems and either shut-off water, or at least notify correctional officers if an inmate flushes too frequently.

Another issue that must be considered in correctional facilities from a plumbing perspective is the fire protection system. Sprinkler heads in inmate accessible areas must be tamper-proof and must be designed to prevent inmates from hanging themselves or others from them. “Institutional” sprinkler heads are designed to break away if a heavy load is hung from it. While this prevents injury, it does create a secondary problem as the sprinkler system will discharge water into the space. While water damage and disruption due to vandalism is not a good thing, one benefit of the sprinkler activating is that it alerts correctional officers that someone has tampered with the sprinkler head.

One method of mitigating the resulting water damage is to have solenoid valves on the sprinkler systems serving the cells. This allows corrections officers to shut-off water flow quickly and remotely, once it has been determined that the sprinkler activation was a result of vandalism and not due to fire.

In this limited space I have only discussed a couple of the issues that must be dealt with in plumbing design for correctional facilities. There are many other issues to consider, but the points highlighted here are the main ones that come up on all correctional facilities. The thing to remember when designing anything in a correctional facility is a variation of the quote from “Field of Dreams.” In the case of correctional facilities, “if you build it, they will come…and try to break it”. <> 

Rod Yeoh, P.Eng., P.E., is a LEED accredited professional and a principal, mechanical engineering, with DIALOG in Vancouver, BC. As a sought after thought-leader, Yeoh has presented on sustainable mechanical systems integration to the Building Owners and Managers Association, BC Hydro, Terasen, Light House Sustainable Building Centre, ASHRAE, APEGBC and at Buildex Vancouver.

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