Special Needs Facilities

The 180,000-square-foot facility in Rawlins, Wyo., was designed by Rosser International to accommodate a sizable special needs population. The facility is built on the grounds of the existing Wyoming State Penitentiary.

There is no definitive answer for what a special needs facility is or whom the buildings need to service. Inmates such as juveniles, women, the chronically ill, mentally ill, or geriatric are all special needs prisoners and each group has a unique housing need.

The Correctional News staff has chronicled these needs in recent issues, focusing the facility spotlight on juvenile facilities in our Jan/Feb issue and on women’s facilities in March/April. In this issue, we talk about designing and programming facilities designed to accommodate aged and ill populations.

The reasons behind an increased elderly population are much discussed, with stricter sentencing laws being one of the chief contributors. The increased number of prisoners categorized as in need of medical assistance can be attributed to a greater emphasis on health care screening when admitted.

In many cases, these new facilities for the elderly and sick have to address issues akin to those dealt with in nursing homes, according to Arthur P. Thompson, AIA, principal at SMRT in Portland, Maine. However, “These facilities are not necessarily intended to house inmates indefinitely. These are not long-term nursing homes,” he says.

Special Needs

Earl Stahl, senior planner for HDR in Dallas, has worked on several of the firm’s special needs facility projects and has learned that, across the board, most of the need for such facilities is at the state level. In 1994, Stahl worked on the project that centralized special needs for the state of Louisiana. States with smaller populations, such as Wyoming, are now just building their first such facility. Larry Phillips, director of justice architecture for Rosser International, is leading the Wyoming project, a $45 million facility constructed adjacent to the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, in which a large number of beds are dedicated to inmates with special needs.

The projects in Louisiana and Wyoming are both combined with a larger, existing facility because it is important to have a shared infrastructure. The existing facility in Rawlins, Wyo., is the state’s largest prison and so shares with the new building its maintenance functions, central plant, warehouse, and visiting area. Existing security measures also help maintain the environment within a special needs facility, which requires a rating of maximum security. The highest security level is necessary because inmates in the special units are separated and housed there because of need, not custody level.

Special Features

What separates special needs units from standard inmate housing are features and equipment. SMRT’s Thompson says the idea is to alter the architecture in small ways that payoff big without severely affecting the project’s budget. Because of age or illness, an inmate’s eyesight, hearing, and equilibrium is diminished and some of Thompson’s suggestions for addressing those problems include:

  • Avoid color-coding and instead use directional signs and signals
  • Maintain consistent light levels
  • Create visual contrast between walls and doorframes, handrails and walls, and other boundaries
  • Avoid placing windows where they can cause disorienting reflections and images
  • Use furniture and materials that absorb sound
  • Avoid the use of ramps, which can make it hard to maintain balance
  • Allow enough room for mobility aids, such as wheelchairs and walkers
  • Provide rest stops along hallways and corridors

Design recommendations from Rosser’s Larry Phillips include the use of single-occupancy rooms, making sure the special needs area is on a single level, and that the space can easily accommodate the increased staff required of such a unit.

Special Costs

Some features required for the special needs units, such as high-tech medical equipment, will, in the short term, add to the project’s cost. But, as Thompson points out, those costs will be recouped because inmates will no longer have to be bussed to and from a hospital. Additionally, the facility’s better initial screening and treatment also will catch problems before they become costly medical crisis later on. As Thompson reminds us, “We’re dealing with a population not used to taking good care of themselves.

However, not all special needs’ items carry a special price tag; “It doesn’t really cost anything extra to avoid certain colors,” says Thompson.