Round-Up: American Epicenters of Corrections

They spring up, sometimes in surprising places, as a practical, needs-based response to an age-old problem.

When they succeed – if their locks, walls, and other products hold up against every conceivable assault – detention leaders generate other businesses, forming clusters of manufacturers, contractors, builders, architects, vendors, engineers, and others. It takes unusual visionaries to think inside the box, and they tend to congregate in specific zones of development: North Georgia; the Decatur-Mobile corridor of Alabama; Chicago-Joliet; San Antonio; and San Francisco.

“The growth of these epicenters of detention usually can be traced back to one great-granddaddy operation that spawns others,” says Erford Harrison, a technical consultant for SteelCell Inc. “It’s sort of like a big oak tree that drops a bunch of acorns, and before long, you have a forest.”

Within these cities, corrections specialists usually know each other.

“The names and faces in the business stay the same for decades – they just switch companies or start their own,” says Rose Simola, who runs The Rose Report, a lead service for contractors, vendors, and architects in Texas.

The same observation applies to corrections design nationwide, in fact.

“It’s a small industry that people tend to stay in for decades, and we all know each other, so ACA shows are like big family reunions,” says Sandy Heitman, who began her career as an 18-year-old secretary at Folger Adam in 1983 and now works as a project manager for the Norix Group.

These detention specialists have learned empirically to follow the darker principles of feng shui, designing cells and furnishings without any lips, hollows, hooks, or detachable items that could be used for contraband, suicide, or weapons. As Hobbesian as these research triangles seem to outsiders, all of this cooperation – and competition – fosters innovation that ultimately makes correctional facilities safer, more hygienic, and more efficient for inmates, employees, and facility visitors. In the 1940s, only a few companies in the country specialized in building jails, Harrison says. “They would come in and build the whole thing from the ground up, taking years, using just one guy to straighten the bars. We clearly needed a smarter approach.”

Moreover, he puts it, “Working in this business ain’t like being a Fuller Brush salesman. Every now and then some of us will try some other line of work, but the recidivism rate is high. Most of us are ‘lifers.’”

The following is a round-up of these American “epicenters” of the detention industry:

North Georgia

Forget those iron bars. That bleak, defining image of jail – and the hacksaws, clanging metal cups, and assault opportunities that go with it — no longer holds in sleek, modern cell design.

“We had one client request the bars awhile back, maybe for old time’s sake, which was strange because jails just aren’t made that way anymore and haven’t been for awhile,” says Harrison. “They obviously have too many security risks because prisoners can reach through them and hurl ‘cocktails’ of their waste.”

Before he joined SteelCell, Harrison, 78, worked at Habersham Metal Products, which popularized hollow metal doors, frames, windows, and wall panels in the late 1970s as a cost-effective and escape-resistant alternative to those iconic pens known in engineering lingo as “bar grille.”

“Habersham Metal effectively led the industry in getting rid of the bars,” says Lawrence Goldberg, a Missouri-based architect who specializes in detention and relies heavily on Georgia vendors.

HM’s spinoff, SteelCell, founded in 2001, produces modular, prefabricated cells, easy to assemble and resistant to bacteria and graffiti. The company, based in Baldwin, supplied Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp with more than 200 cells — a dramatic upgrade from the exposed, wire-mesh cages that formerly housed detainees in the notorious, rat-infested Camp X-Ray — along with a secret number of units shipped to the government’s “undisclosed locations” for terrorism suspects. Its executives have advised administrators in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and other countries whose penal institutions would benefit from an extreme makeover.

“Any time a country wants most-favored trade status, the first indicator of its human rights record is its jails, so some of them come to us for help in becoming better world citizens,” says company president Mike Smith.

Other players in the region include Piedmont Metal Processing; Carter Goble Lee; and Detention Management LLC founded by Charles “Bud” Black, a pioneer of alternatives to incarceration, including electronic and GPS monitoring.

The state of Georgia, they like to point out, started as a penal colony.

Decatur-Mobile corridor, Alabama

Longtime specialists in homeland security, the companies in this stretch of Bama set their sights on bullet-proof and blast-resistant materials, supplying rural country jails as well as embassies in trouble-spots.

The “Security Electronics Corridor: starts around the high-tech Huntsville-Decatur area in the hills and bisects the state like a silver zipper for 360 miles to Mobile on the coast.

“Combine a Southern work ethic with the demographic shifts in population and in manufacturing from North to South — the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt — and the fact that, with the trend toward privatization gaining ground here and the strength of the steel industry, it’s cheaper and easier to operate in the South,” says Mitch Claborn, president and CEO of Cornerstone Detention Products, based in Tanner.

Many of the oldest companies are centered in “The River City” of Decatur, he says, citing Decatur Iron and Steel, established in the early 1940s, as the patriarch of the corporate family tree. “Willo hatched off them in 1945, and then came Roanoke Iron and Bridge, Southern division, which then spun off Slate Security,” he says. “Then Roanoke shut down, and Norment in Montgomery got into detention in the 1980s. U.S. Security Systems, Montgomery Technology Inc. (MTI), and several other companies, came out of Norment.”

Adds Jack Ozier, president of Willo and son of its founder, Melvin Ozier, “We’ve spawned at least four or five other successful companies — the free enterprise system at work — and we all stay friends. We strive for a family atmosphere, keeping stress to a minimum.”

Other major players in the corridor include Black Creek Integrated Systems in Irondale and SimplexGrinnell, which specializes in alarm systems and integrated security, sound and healthcare communications, while two behemoths with Montgomery offices are the Norment Security Group, a detention systems contractor, and Norshield, a globally-recognized industry leader in armoring at-risk installations.

Norshield was launched in 1981 to help the U.S. Department of State upgrade its security at embassy sites around the world, and it since has completed more than 8,000 projects from the Middle East to the White House to small-town police precincts.


Chicago, with its rambunctious history of Tommy-gun gangsters and political corruption, had to develop some sturdy, lock-and-key mechanisms for criminal justice.

Until it was purchased in 2005 by Southern Steel, Folger Adam served as a multi–generational mainstay in detention innovation dating back to the 1870s, when company founder William J. Adam settled in Joliet and established an iron-works business that developed pens for less challenging detainees: barbed wire and chicken-wire to enclose frontier livestock.

“It grew from there into other forms of detention hardware, starting with steel boxes with locks and then prefabricated, portable cells sold as a whole unit, but mostly Folger Adam specialized in swinging doors,” says Robert Brink, who married the founder’s granddaughter, Connie, and served as president of company before launching his own company, RR Brink Locking Systems.

For most of its history, Folger Adam’s backyard held the notorious Joliet prison — inspiration for many three-chord blues standards and setting for the “Blues Brothers” — which recently was replaced by Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility of more than over 3,500 inmates. These institutions helped create a sprawling culture of corrections that over the years has included Midwest Detention; Failsafe Lighting; Cortech; Kenall Manufacturing; and architecture firms such as Phillips Swager Associates (PSA)-Dewberry; and H.H. Henningson, Charles Durham and Willard Richardson (HDR).

Irv Dana and Bill Larson, both architects, and engineer, Jim Roubal, started the DLR Group in 1966, and it since has expanded westward, to California, and eastward, to Shanghai, to become rated No. 1 in criminal justice design by British-based BD World Architecture.

“Most of us in this community got a lot of our experience during the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s, when at least 20 facilities were built in this area,” says Jeff Goodale, director of justice design for HOK, with a Chicago office of 100 employees.

Ed Claffy established Fail-Safe Lighting, a leader in vandal-resistant fixtures, and today advises his son, Joe, on his growing company, Cortech, a designer, manufacturer, and supplier of detention furnishings — chairs, trash receptacles, carts, and other corrections-specific gear.

Chicago also plays host to American Correctional Associations conferences and shows.

“Yes, we offer the tourists the Al Capone gangster tours,” Goodale says with a sigh.

San Antonio

Of all the detention giants, Southern Steel generally is regarded as the most generative in siring other businesses. Founded in 1897 by David F. Youngblood, it proved so innovative in metal fabrication and sliding-door locking systems that it was awarded the contract for New York’s Rikers Island Penitentiary, the largest steel-constructed jail in the country.

“In my opinion, the country’s primary epicenters of detention are in Alabama and San Antonio because the industry in both is so deeply rooted by these old, granddaddy companies – Decatur Iron and Steel, where my father worked, and Southern Steel,” says Alabama native Randy DeMent, who worked at Southern Steel and the Texas Department of Corrections before launching the detention division at the CCC Group, Inc. “Both companies have spun off too many other companies to count.”

In 1989, Phelps-Tointon, Inc. of Colorado acquired Southern Steel, and 15 years later, those companies merged with Chicago’s Folger Adam Security, Inc. to form Southern Folger Detention Equipment Company.
“One of our strengths today is the comprehensiveness of our full product line, from sliding doors to video visitation equipment,” says president Donald Halloran.

Sam Youngblood, 55, great-grandson of the company’s founder, worked as a project manager during his summer breaks from Baylor. “When I graduated, I went to work in the family business, charged with developing a product line equal to Folger Adam, our competitor at the time.”

In 1983, Youngblood launched ISI, which was acquired by Argyle in 2006, and now he directs the ISI Security Group, a parent company to several multipurpose enterprises, including ISI, which has installed detention equipment for more than 1,400 facilities; Metroplex Control Systems (MCS); Peterson Detention Inc. (PDI); and Com-Tec Security.

Because of its central location, amenities, and golf-friendly climate, San Antonio also serves as the summer and winter headquarters of the American Correctional Association, the oldest and largest umbrella organization of its kind in the world, with more than 20,000 active members.

San Francisco

Northern California claims three of the most notorious historic penal institutions in the world: Folsom State Prison, one of the first maximum security facilities and a favorite venue for Johnny Cash; San Quentin, with the largest death row in the western hemisphere; and, Alcatraz, the “Rock,” once billed as escape-proof.

However, the architects and detention contractors and specialists in San Francisco and Sacramento are focused on a sunny future with a distinctly West Coast sensibility that emphasizes sustainability, re-entry, outreach, and more holistic community involvement.

“Our mission is to use the power of design to change people’s lives and to facilitate the magic that arises out of a collaborative process,” says Beverly Prior, who has held several leadership roles, locally and nationally, as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, which boasts an especially dynamic Bay Area chapter.

Prior and her colleagues face an imperative to “do more with less” now that the U.S. Supreme Court has required California to reduce crowding within its 33 adult institutions to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years, a mandate expected to shift roughly 33,000 of the state’s 143,000 inmates to county jails and re-entry programs.

“The way I see it, the federal mandate we’re facing means more opportunities and ultimately a lot more work for people on my end,” says Robert Legg, a detention equipment contractor whose company, Legg Inc., is one of the fastest growing in the Bay Area.

So the good news is that, as Prior phrases it in her blog, “innovation is often birthed out of crisis.” And competition; don’t let the yoga and meditation schedules posted in the office break-rooms fool you.

“I believe the San Francisco area has the largest and most capable community of detention architects and engineers — quantity and quality — in the country, probably even more than Los Angeles,” says Jim Mueller, chairman of the correctional division of KMD Architects, which has been ranked in the Top 10 Criminal Justice Design firms, “and that makes for an intensely competitive environment that yields creative, progressive solutions. This area has been a trend-setter in design-build project delivery to the first direct supervision, maximum security county jail project, establishing that direct supervision management model as the standard.”

Other Bay area dynamos include HOK and HDR architecture firms; Vanir Construction Management; Herrick Iron Works; Universal Iron Works; Norment, which took over EMSS in the mid-1990s; and the venerable Forderer Cornice Works, purveyor of hollow-metal doors, which was founded by a German immigrant in 1875 and still is operated by the Forderer family.

Nearby in Sacramento, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, with more than 41 million square feet of space and leases totaling more than 2 million square feet, is the largest nonfederal correctional system in the nation.