The Future of Direct Supervision

Direct supervision is hardly a new design concept and architect Chuck Oraftik with HOK in San Francisco is very familiar with it, having designed 27 detention and correctional facilities during his 23 years in this highly specialized field.

And while Oraftik is pleased that the concept has evolved from its original operational perspective, his familiarity with direct supervision makes him a little concerned by the fact that the idea-which seemed so exciting when first introduced 25-30 years ago by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP)-has advanced so little architecturally in almost three decades.

However, the time has come for change. Based on modifications Oraftik has made to his direct supervision designs, he sees changes involving the concept of “borrowed light” and the extensive use of upgraded electronics and the newest technologies-changes he says add no extra costs to a facility design.

The Beginning of Direct Supervision

The rallying cry for the mid- to late-1960s was “question authority.” During that period, lawsuits concerning constitutional conditions for inmates and minimum standards that must be met when providing them housing were plentiful. Following the lawsuits was an explosion in new jail and prison construction in the mid-to-late 1970s-spearheaded by the FBOP-because many older facilities did not meet the newly established conditions.

The direct supervision model was developed by the FBOP as an economical way to improve operations at its larger facilities (200-1,000 beds). Their plan was to create in new facilities a humane and decent environment that encouraged and reinforced positive behavior modification. The first such high-profile projects were federal detention centers constructed in Chicago, New York City, and San Diego. Eventually, it was thought that such facilities would replace both county facilities and lower security units within jails and prisons.

Almost immediately thereafter, several counties including Contra Costa County, Calif., Clark County, Nev., and Multnomah County, Ore., concluded that the three landmark facilities would be ideal models for their new detention facilities; these facilities were much like their federal counterparts in both operations and design.

And while these facilities had a nice, non-institutional feel-they had carpeting, upholstered furniture, acoustical tiles-they were sold to the public as a way to save money. They were built with porcelain plumbing fixtures instead of stainless steel, they had lower grade locks, and solid wood doors. Use of these fittings was consistent with the thinking that direct supervision provides a higher level of security and lower incidence of vandalism. But whether or not these original direct supervision facilities were more economical to build than other designs is still debated; some consider it a wash.

Finishing materials, such as the carpeting, also were meant to have a psychological effect on inmates, lowering noise and tension levels. When first entering a facility, “the environment didn’t shock the inmates and 80 to 90 percent responded positively to the environment,” explains Oraftik. And the calmer environment that started at booking continued through the rest of the building.

However, the architects still defining-and refining-the concept of direct supervision, had to contend with another psychological effect: a more hardened public who thought the facilities were “too nice.” Officials had to fight the perception that they were spending too much money making these facilities “glamour slammers,” and therefore had to start taking features away. Oraftik refers to it as “death by 1,000 cuts.”

Direct Supervision Decline

America had a revolution in thinking around 1980, just when the idea of direct supervision began to flower. What they wanted and what they were willing to pay for differed greatly. They wanted “better, faster, cheaper, ” and were less willing to support what they considered a “luxurious” jail environment. “Direct supervision is a good idea,” explains Oraftik, “but it came with baggage.” The fiscal squeeze-and the nation following California’s example after the state passed Prop 13 and drastically cut a county’s tax base-forced government to find a cheaper way of accomplishing their goals, and keeping direct supervision alive was one of their goals. Oraftik describes the process as making jails “harder.” The ratio of general population inmates to officers increased, up from 48 or less to 64 or more, carpeting was removed, stainless steel fixtures replaced porcelain units, metal doors were installed, and even selection of paint colors faded into industrial beiges and whites.

“The entire environment changed, but not the architecture,” says Oraftik. “The things that made the environments more ‘normal’ and more conducive to behavior modification were taken away.” But, direct supervision is more than a design or layout-it is an entire concept that needs all of its various elements in order to work properly. “By removing certain elements, the idea has been weakened and degraded,” comments Oraftik. Although there are people making the idea work, and according to Oraftik that’s a real tribute to them, the concept needs to evolve and elements need to be added back into the mix so that direct supervision once again functions as intended. Oraftik does not see a return to the old days but is optimistic about the future of direct supervision design. He sees new designs incorporating two items: borrowed light and new technology.

Advancing Direct Supervision

Borrowed light is the concept of flooding natural light directly into the dayrooms and then filtering the light into cells and elsewhere throughout the correctional facility-creating a more therapeutic environment. ACA guidelines stipulate inmate access to natural light, but since inmates in podular direct supervision facilities spend most of their time outside of their cells and in dayrooms, Oraftik figures that is where natural light should be directed. Outside windows in cells are wasteful while interior-facing windows allow more natural light and provide a better view for the officer monitoring the unit. Originally, daylighting was not required in dayrooms or program spaces.

Oraftik came upon the idea of borrowed light back in 1981 when working on a facility in Alaska. His challenge was to find a solution to the region’s six months of daylight and six months of no light. His solution was to eliminate costly exterior cell windows and use larger but less expensive interior windows between the cell and dayrooms. He also then included large windows between the dayrooms and exercise yards. Oraftik has been refining the concept ever since.

Besides showering natural light into the most used areas of a housing unit, removing outside windows within the cells increases security, decreases the incidence of contraband and escape attempts, and allows the building’s envelope to be better sealed-creating a “thermos bottle” effect-for increased energy efficiency.

The concept also reduces construction costs while increasing space efficiency. According to Oraftik, cells can be relocated to interior areas allowing them to be built back-to-back so more cells can be constructed within a smaller building footprint-essentially creating a larger building with less area. A small utility chase running between the back-to-back cells allows easy access to mechanical systems without entering inmate areas. As for safety, if an inmate manages to break through one of the interior panes, they are essentially breaking into the facility. The exterior light sources-windows, light wells, other openings-are designed to be out of reach of inmates.

The way Oraftik envisions technology advancing the direct supervision concept is by allowing officers greater mobility and freedom to monitor the housing unit.

Oraftik mentions that a few years ago one of his clients, who had noticed his staff spending too much time tethered to the dayroom communication/control desk, wondered why, with the profusion of cell phones and laptops elsewhere in society, such equipment couldn’t be used in a detention facility; portable controls would provide his staff with more effective control of the unit.

The response was the use of technology that is a variation on the telephone; while a housing unit still has a control console, the devices allow officers to walk the unit with a portable phone that can communicate with central control, respond to inmate call buttons, control lighting and TV’s, and open cell doors from anywhere in the unit.

With increasing miniaturization and handheld palm devices, it seems opportunities exist to make direct supervision more effective, efficient, and safe. Oraftik says that, depending on an officer’s comfort level with technology and the current rate of technological advancements, he may be able to tweak his direct supervision designs by removing the housing unit’s central console entirely.

A Brighter Future

Because the concept of borrowed light is still open to interpretation, Oraftik feels that it can be misused. Currently, ACA standards only define access to natural light but not how much light inmates have access to so Oraftik worries about facilities being too conservative in the amount of daylighting they allow. He is, however, optimistic that he and other innovative architects and engineers can help guide direct supervision architecture on an appropriate path. .