Desert Storm

A lone sand dune once was the only thing occupying this New Mexico mesa. The remote site, more than 17 miles outside Albuquerque, is now home to what could become one of the largest jails in the United States, a highly anticipated project promising to showcase the latest correctional technologies.

The new $86 million Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center began taking inmates in December 2002, and is expected to soon reach its 2,100-bed capacity. The spacious support spaces make this facility expandable up to 5,000 beds, and given that the county’s inmate population grew 500 percent over the past two decades, there’s every sign those beds will be needed.

Each unit houses 512 inmates, broken down into eight clusters of 64-inmate pods. The efficient, unit-management floor plan was designed with interchangeable dimensions for dormitory or cell housing, a flexible layout created by the joint venture of CBL/DCSW (Custer Basarich Limited/Design Collaborative Southwest). "The facility is currently 450,000 square feet, and we managed to get more than 2,000 inmates in that space for an average of about $133 per square foot," says Ron Burstein, project architect for DCSW. "It’s about half the size of a shopping mall, and the facility is mostly one story, so it stretches out very far."

Card access, pneumatic door control, and touchscreens come standard in the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC). There are more than 200 video stations dedicated to visitation-the facility’s remote location demanded this setup-and there are extensive provisions for video arraignment. In addition, there are 240 IP-based telephones and 10 separate telecom rooms. All data transmission travels through a Level 3 Optical Carrier (OC3) at over 200 megabytes per second.

The curved entryway’s aluminum panels are a striking sight on this remote New Mexico mesa.

The MDC’s outstanding features include a large booking area designed to function like a bus terminal, where detainees watch orientation videos in an open waiting area. Additionally, the facility has a computer-controlled vacuum sewer system that both saves water and prevents inmates from sabotaging the plumbing; state-of-the-art areas for staff dining, exercise, and training; and a visitor’s lobby with fine finishes.

Cross Traffic

Albuquerque’s crime rate is higher than other U.S. cities of similar size, and the pressure on detention services has been building for a long time. In 1990, a jail designed for 288 inmates was holding more than 1,000. Five years later, a federal judge capped the jail’s population at 586, forcing county officials to expand facilities and house inmates in temporary structures. The inmate population swelled to 1,450, and the operation budget doubled. Finally, in 2000, the city and county released bonds to initiate designs for an all-new jail.

Under a long-standing joint-power agreement, it is the city, and not Bernalillo County, that operates the jail. While both governments fund jail operations, the county alone was responsible for building the new facility-an arrangement that complicated project development. Debates about the character of the MDC, from the type of water system to be used to the facility’s relationship to the downtown courts, were not fully resolved until after designs were complete.

Booking was designed to function like a bus station. Detainees who remain calm can wait in an open area and watch regular television programming or orientation videos about detention. Those who act up are placed in the cells surrounding the open area.

For example, county judges were slow to fully embrace the notion of video arraignment, and there is still resistance from the Public Defender’s Office. By the time enough judges supported the new technology as a way to reduce transportation costs, a courtroom was being built at the MDC to accommodate traditional court sessions. Making use of the courtroom is now a task for Bob Ashmore, Bernalillo County’s director of information technology.

"The MDC courtroom was designed to have a judge in it out there, and we’ve had to retrofit a courtroom in ways that could have been designed differently had we known video was going to be the medium," says Ashmore. "We’re attaching things to walls that weren’t set up to have anything attached to them."

In addition to the pressures of a federally-ordered population cap, a remote building site, and rising construction costs, costly project delays can be attributed to miscommunication between the numerous government agencies involved. The planning team responded by downsizing the project and breaking up the bid packages into eight separate RFPs, accelerating the schedule. Despite those events, officials remain enthusiastic about their new jail, particularly the increased efficiency. "The number of staff we needed to supervise 1,450 inmates is no different than what we’ll need to supervise 2,100, and that’s a huge cost savings," says Dantis.

Money was set aside for lobby finishes-such as cove lighting and a red oak reception desk-to enhance the visitor’s first contact with the facility.

"In my 22 years of building criminal justice facilities, this one is the closest to setting the budget to the needs, rather than the other way around. The county got a good return on their expenditure, with approximately 80 percent of the budget going toward construction," says Rod Jensen of Morris Knudsen Corporation, the construction management firm. "Difficulties always come up when bringing a facility on line, and we were no exception. But when all is said and done, this facility will be one the county will be proud of and will set a higher standard for future jails."

When jailers from across the country visit the facility as part of the American Jail Association’s upcoming conference in Albuquerque, they can expect to see this future unfolding.

Secure Sewers

Originally, designers anticipated running water lines out to the facility, but in an attempt to discourage new development in the area, city officials insisted that a well be drilled at the site to supply water. "The well is over 1,800 feet deep and the water needs extensive treatment. Consequently, we were borrowing water from the neighbors for construction and hauled water in tanker trailers for system start-up," says Jensen. Sewage treatment lagoons also were constructed on site.

Once officials decided to drill a ground well, it only made sense to go with a vacuum sewer system, like those used on cruise liners. By forgoing a standard water-flush toilet system, the facility stands to save 1.6 million gallons of water per year. "We’re in a semi-arid area and water is very precious to us," says Dantis. "Any opportunity we have to demonstrate that we can save water, we have an obligation to do that."

Though the switch from direct water lines to a ground well was a setback for contractors, the vacuum toilet system has become a prominent asset to the facility, and not just by saving water. Such systems, it turns out, offer striking security features. The widespread inmate practice of sabotaging the plumbing system by flushing towels and other inappropriate items is prevented, as is the ability to communicate through pipes.

With direct-supervision pods, the same number of officers needed to supervise 1,450 inmates can now supervise 2,100.

The system utilizes vacuum suction rather than gravity to transport waste, which goes to a central vacuum collection module. Central vacuums are expensive, but sheriffs are drawn to their advantages. "The problem with the traditional toilet system is once they flush a towel, you don’t know how far it is going to travel until it hangs up in the system. The towel might be right in the middle of the facility, backing up hundreds of cells," says Ron Mims of M&M Sales, which supplied the vacuum toilet system from EVAC Environmental Solutions, used in conjunction with Acorn fixtures.

"In a vacuum system, it only backs up at that one cell because it operates with a closed system. The waste has to pass through the flush valve, and if it can’t, it hangs up right there. And there will only be a back up at that commode." Flush valves also thwart the practice of storing contraband in plumbing-inmates can no longer fasten a string to the material and flush it for retrieval later. Flushing for disposal is hindered as well.

Using a computer, officers can shut off toilets in one cell or an entire unit, an electronic option also available with conventional sewer systems. "From what I understand of conventional toilet systems in jails, there’s always water in the toilet bowl, so they have one flush left. If a guy hears there’s a shake down, he can dispose of the material even if the water has been shut off," says Mims. "In a vacuum system, when you shut it down, it’s shut down."

MDC officers gain an additional level of control via computer monitoring of cell-by-cell flush rates, tracking how often each inmate uses a commode.

"I can’t tell you how often, as a captain on shift, we placed an inmate in special management and he flooded his cell," says Jail Deputy Director Michael Sisneros. "Even if you stripped their room, they would still find something to flush, maybe stuff their underwear in the toilet. Now, we can control that with a computer and limit his toilet flushes to once every hour, or we can turn it off for longer if necessary."

Relaxed Atmosphere

Efficiency is exemplified in the booking area with an open design not unlike a bus station. There are holding cells ringing the booking area, where officers stand on a foot-high platform to manage the process. "There’s really no partitions separating the booking officers from the inmates," says Burstein.

There are 52 video visitation stations in the lobby. When stations in the pods are counted, the number totals more than 200.

"Generally, the booking area is the hub for inmates being booked, released, [and] transferred for outside medical treatment, or to court," explains Dantis. "Now, each of those functions has its own separate area. The confusion over who is being released and booked is eliminated, so the passing of contraband is eliminated."

"If the individuals booked into our facility want to remain calm, cool, and collected, they can sit unconfined and call a bondsman." Persons detained for short periods can watch regular television programming. Those being booked for longer stays are shown an orientation video on a second monitor, introducing them to commissary, visitation, and jail protocol. "But, if the individual wants to be ‘Billy Bad Ass,’ then we also have the traditional cells," says Sisneros.

Another realm in which the MDC excels is in provisions for staff. As a 24-year veteran of the city-county jail, Sisneros tries to keep in mind what it’s like for officers. "One of the things that used to bug me is that a lot of things are done for the inmates, but people forget staff are doing time here, too-we’re just doing it eight or 16 hours at a time," says Sisneros. "It’s important that you try to make staff comfortable while you’re trying to provide security, and we didn’t want to lose our focus on that."

Jail personnel were greeted with a new staff dining room with indoor and outdoor seating, nicely arranged around planters. "The canteen is actually going to have a cook line in staff dining, where they’ll actually cook to order," says Sisneros with pride. "We also designed and built a very nice workout room with lockers and showers for the staff. Before, we had to use the inmate recreation area when the inmates weren’t there."

Architects used colors and patterns wherever possible, and brought natural light in through the recreation area windows.

In addition, the facility includes space for officer training, complete with a mock cell to train jail personnel for strip searches, cell searches, and cell extractions. "Having training right there, we don’t have to send staff out of the facility and can schedule their training as part of the shift," says Sisneros. "Then we had the contractor build us two cells outside the facility so we can go out there with the CERT (Corrections Emergency Response Tactics) team and practice cell extractions with flash bangs (distraction grenades)."


At the entrance where visitors first make contact with the MDC, a curtainwall system and a projecting aluminum element provide shade at the upper and mid levels, and also break the front elevation into two parts. The curved entry vestibule leads to the central check-in desk that separates the holding area from the secure portion of the waiting area.

"On the ceiling we have cove lighting, perforated wood panel ceilings, and gypsum board with wainscoting," says Burstein. The full-height CMU is both durable and attractive, done in random colors that, from a distance, make it look like stone. All the wood in the lobby is red oak, and the reception desk on the upper level is granite.

Project Data

Bernalillo Co., Metropolitan Detention Center,
Albuquerque, N.M.

Owner: Bernalillo County
Operator: City of Albuquerque
Construction Manager: Morrison Knudsen Corporation
Architect: CBL/DCSW
Security Design: Durrant
Contractor: Bradbury Stamm Construction, Inc.
Security/Detention Contractor: ESI Companies
Kitchen Operator: Canteen
Video Visitation: VUGate
Video Arraignment: Tandberg
Plumbing Fixtures: Acorn
Vacuum Toilet System: EVAC Inc.
Personal Alarm System: Actall
PLC: ESI Companies
CCTV: Viacom
Intercom: Hartman
Security Glazing: Insulgard
Security Windows: Trussbilt
Security Fencing: StunFence
Security Locks: Folger Adam
Security Sprinkler System: Star
Officer Tour System: Morse Watchman
Concrete: LaFarge
CMU: Rinker Products
Exterior Finish: DryBlock CMU
Vinyl Flooring: FloTex
Roofing: Firestone, Stevens
Emergency Generators: Caterpillar

Entrance floors were laid with oversize porcelain tile in three different colors and two different textures-polished and matte. "We were able to spend a little bit of money to make a good impression," says Burstein. "Not only people visiting the inmates, but also the office workers."

The use of color doesn’t stop in the public spaces. "We tried to use color and pattern wherever possible, even in the central passageway," says Burstein, whose designs also provided ample daylighting from skylights and from windows onto the recreation areas. "The patterning there lets inmates know they’re supposed to walk nearer the wall, and others walk down the middle. We tried to make sure the facility was as uplifting as possible and to incorporate the latest equipment."

One of the newest products to find its way into American jails is FloTex flooring, used in the MDC’s booking area and in video system-equipped dayrooms. Already an established product in Europe, FloTex is an extremely durable carpeting variant that Burstein jokingly describes as "fuzzy vinyl." He says a short nap allows the flooring to be cleaned with virtually any type of cleaners or cleaning equipment.

Fifty-two video visitation stations stand in the lobby, and there are 64 in the pods, making four for each housing unit. "It’s direct-connected to the VUGate system over a copper medium to two 128-port super-hubs that we partitioned for each housing unit, so if we lose one super-hub, we don’t lose total connectivity for visitation," says Rudy Elebario, senior network analyst for the county’s IT Department, which put out separate RFPs for the video systems.

The county chose Tandberg to provide video arraignment at the MDC, minimizing electronic translation issues because the video conferencing company’s systems already were in use at the downtown courthouse. The system includes printers for court documents that work in conjunction with electronic signature pads to capture detainee signatures electronically, and the cameras have remote pan/tilt/zoom capability.

"What’s plagued us for years is that when the judge issues a warrant, they want to see that inmate on that warrant," says Sisneros. "It’s been a headache to have to go down to arraignments. Then, if the suspect had three additional warrants, we had to go to three separate judges. With video, we take that person to arraignments, schedule with the court when the judges are available, and the inmate doesn’t move."

One remaining challenge is to extend video arraignment for telemedicine and distance learning. The budget is exhausted, but the county is discussing possible solutions with the University of New Mexico Hospital.

The MDC will be judged by how much it improves operational conditions, and in this it provides an exceptional base from which to expand as Albuquerque and Bernalillo County struggle with an exploding inmate population.