Whoever said “sometimes getting there is half the fun” apparently was not involved with planning or constructing the United States Penitentiary in Lee County, Va., located just outside of Jonesville in the western corner of the state. For the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ facility, “getting there” included overcoming a gauntlet of obstacles – grading issues, wetlands, endangered species, archeological ruins, sinkholes and caves – that had the potential to turn planning and construction into a nightmare.
With a per capita income of $12,917 among nearly 24,000 residents in the early 1990s, Lee County became a prime candidate to host a federal prison, which could bring outside money into the community.
United States Penitentiary
Lee Jonesville, Va.
Delivery Method: Design-bid-build
Construction Budget: $102 million
Number of Beds: Penitentiary 960, minimum-security camp 128
Area (square feet.): High-security penitentiary 650,000 gsf; minimum-security camp 50,000 gsf; central shared facilities 40,000 gsf; and UNICOR factory facility and warehouse 90,000 gsf
Start Date: Summer 1998
Completion Date: August 2001
Construction Manager: Harry Stockton, HSMM
Owner: Federal Bureau of Prisons
Owner Representative: Richard Formella, FBOP
Project Manager: Gary Carsten, FBOP; Warren Wertz PE, HSMM; General Contractors: Hardaway Construction (early site preparation); Ray Bell Construction Company (USP and Federal Prison Camp)
Security System Consultant: Buford-Goff Associates, and Musacchio & Associates
Food Service Consultant: HopkinsFoodservice
“These prisons bring a lot of money into a community on a yearly basis in terms of generating local business,” says Gary Carsten, who served as project manager for the FBOP. “A lot of our prisons are located in rural areas where there is a lot of hardship.”
By the end of the decade plans for a new penitentiary in the county were in motion and negotiations between the bureau and congressional representatives narrowed the potential sites in western Virginia down to a handful of locations. The plan netted little resistance from the locals.
“This community was very much in favor of having a prison in their area,” says Carsten, who is now senior architect at the FOBP. “We hardly received any objections from residents of Lee County. Compared to some of the areas the bureau has gone in and developed, this was one of the easier ones.”
While the project easily won the hearts of residents in the mountainous city, technical aspects proved to be a bit more difficult. Environmental impact reports revealed a series of obstacles that could bog the project down with red tape if they were not addressed properly. But despite numerous issues with the site, it was still a better option than other alternatives in the area.
“This was perhaps one of the easiest ones to develop in that part of the country, although they were all very difficult because of the mountainous terrain in the area,” Carsten says.
“It had limestone underneath the surface that was very soft and prone to sinkholes and caving in,” Carsten says. “We had to avoid developing in that portion of the site because it would have been cost-prohibitive to mitigate those circumstances. Plus, we would have been interfering with the natural drainage of the site, which we didn’t want to do.”
Any alterations to the drainage at the site could have affected water quality in the watershed, which would have meant government interferences with the project.
To complicate the matter, a 100-foot-long cave created by the drainage system and soft limestone provided a home for Myotis grisescens, also known as the grey bat, which has been on the endangered species list since 1976.
The property was also home to American Indians dating as far back as 10,000 years. Archeological finds on the property included an ancient gravesite – believed to be associated with an ancient hospital – arrowheads and pottery.
The combination of the soft limestone, bat cave and archeological sites provided a challenging riddle for the FBOP and Hayes, Seay, Mattern & Mattern Inc., which was the low bidder on the $102 million design-bid-build project. Both Bill Porter, senior vice president at HSMM, and project architect Steve Sowder, AIA, say a collaborative effort with the bureau helped negate the hurdles.
“I think the most important thing that we were able to do was pull together a charrette during the early part of the project,” Porter says. “Rather than making the design decisions ourselves, we had a very knowledgeable client, and we figured if we put the information in front of them our role would be primarily to help them make decisions. We thought the easiest way for them to do that would be if they could see all the facts at once.”
The charrette – a collaborative process used to ensure that project deadlines are met – included several people from the FBOP, along with 25 to 30 HSMM employees from several different disciplines.
“Every time you did one thing it was certain to impact another discipline, probably more so than any other project I’ve been involved with during the site-planning process,” Porter says. “Everything is interweaved.”
After a lengthy process the two organizations forged a plan that would avoid potentially troublesome areas of the site.
The penitentiary design generally avoided construction on the western side of the property where the soft limestone and bat cave are located. However, a minimum-security camp with buildings that are lighter than the penitentiary was installed near the area. The archaeological ruins in the southern portion of the site were cordoned off and also avoided.
“Avoidance is the key term,” Porter says. “Through working so closely with our environmental sciences through the years, it had been drilled into me that avoiding environmental issues is always the first choice.
“It’s crystal clear that any time you get into one of those issues with mitigation, you’re into a more significant permitting process that has potential to stall the project.”
With the ruins, bat cave and soft limestone issues out of the way, planners could finally start site work and tackle their final major challenge – building a large-scale penitentiary into the side of a mountain.
While the western area of the site contained soft limestone, the upper portion of the property, where the penitentiary complex was to be located, consisted of hard rock. To create a level area for the facility, crews cut 70 feet into the mountain and used the material to create a level platform.
“In that part of the country there is rock everywhere and it’s almost right below the surface of the soil,” Carsten says. “We ended up blasting and crushing a lot of rock to make a level platform to build our prison on.”
More than 1 million cubic yards of material were moved from the summer of 1998 to March 1999. The work cost about $11 million, an unusually high price for ground work at most FBOP projects, according to Carsten.
By using the cut-and-fill technique construction crews were able to avoid the import and export of additional materials by using the crushed rock they had blasted out of the mountainside to create a platform to build on.
To create a smaller footprint, the FBOP’s preferred penitentiary design of six two-story housing units was compressed to three four-story housing units.
“The site was a very difficult site,” Sowder says. “We were basically on a very steep hillside and we had to cut out a very large area to make a flat site to put the facility on. Getting an optimum footprint that fit into that site while minimizing the cut and fill was a huge challenge for us.”
The altered design minimized the amount of material that needed to be cut from the mountain, but it created a bigger burden for employees involved in the day-to-day operation of the facility.
“It’s actually a more difficult procedure for the staff because if they have an emergency on some of the upper floors, they’ve got to run up four flights of stairs to get to the top of the building,” Carsten says. “The staff prefers to have two-story buildings, but in this case we had to get them four-story buildings. It’s not unusual for us to do four-story housing units. It’s just we don’t like to do them.”
More cut-and-fill was also avoided by placing the administrative building lower on the hillside, which also allowed the bureau to utilize an innovative design to reduce security risks.
Because the administrative building is located on a lower grade than the main compound, HSMM utilized a tunnel design that allowed access into the main complex.
At most FBOP penitentiaries a double fence that lines the perimeter of the main compound goes up and over the administrative building, according to Carsten, but because the administrative building at USP Lee is located further down the hillside, the fence does not come into contact with the building.
“It saved us a considerable amount of money in site work doing it this way,” Carsten says. “Enough to pay for the tunnel and then some.”
The design has security and safety benefits as well. With the fence set several feet back from the building, a perimeter track along the outside of the fence is unobstructed, which maximizes surveillance and patrols. The tunnel system allows employees, visitors and prisoners to enter the compound without breaching the fence and it also allows officers to enter a central watch tower without walking on the penitentiary grounds with their weapons. In case of an emergency, such as a prison riot or inmate uprising, the officers in the central tower also have a secure exit route.
“It provides safe means of egress for the folks in the central tower in case of a disturbance,” Porter says.
Only one other FBOP penitentiary, in Allenswood, Pa., uses a similar tunnel system, according to Carsten.
Before construction of the central tower and five other towers that line the perimeter of the facility, HSMM used a computer modeling technique to determine the line of sight at each of the towers.
Changes to the design of the towers were made as necessary. When blind spots were unavoidable HSMM notified the FBOP and the two entities did what they could to reduce risks. USP Lee marked one of the first times that type of modeling was used to determine blind spots at an FBOP facility.
USP Lee also marked one of the first FBOP facilities to use a taut-wire security fence between two security fences, and precast cells. Taut-wire fences are now used at every FBOP penitentiary and precast cells were accepted as the construction method of choice for the bureau around the same time USP Lee was under construction.
‘Piece of Cake’
Since USP Lee accepted its first prisoners in 2002, there have been no problems that are out of the ordinary, according to Carsten. The only major issue that has come up since its completion is excessive strain on the county’s sewage system, a recurring problem at correctional facilities throughout the country.
In hindsight, the parties involved in planning the facility say that creating it was the easy part.
“We were trying to make everything work out on the site so that we didn’t disturb these areas that were going to be even more problematic, in terms of sinkholes and drainage and so on,” Carsten says. “That was really the main challenge of the project. After we got done with the site work, I think everything else was a piece of cake really.”
Chopper Pumps: Hobart Corporation