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Wisconsin's Sand Ridge Treatment Center
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor
Published: 03/19/2001

As states begin to utilize 'civil commitment' to keep sex offenders beyond the time of their criminal sentence, the need for secure facilities where these individuals can focus on treatment issues with the possibility of being returned to the community has increased. One such facility in Wisconsin is set to open this summer that not only takes into account security, but also respects the treatment needs and goals of sex offenders.

'If you conceptualize a continuum, with, at one end, a pure correctional facility and at the other end a pure treatment facility where security is not a major concern, we try to pick a mix of both sorts of places for sort of a 'blended facility,'' says Steven Watters, Director of the Sand Ridge Treatment Center. 'We've combined a very high security facility and then internally, aesthetically as such, it is clearly not a traditional 'correctional facility.'' 

Sand Ridge, located in Mauston, Wisconsin, is a 300-bed treatment facility that will begin housing individuals designated as sexually violent persons under Wisconsin's Sexually Violent Person Treatment Program in mid-June. Set to be the first large size facility of its kind, it has not come without a series of challenges for architects, designers, and lawmakers.

After Wisconsin passed it's Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act in 1994, there was an immediate need to find a location to house those offenders not ready to be released to the community. The state began to temporarily house these individuals at the Wisconsin Resource Center, a medium-security correctional facility, until rising numbers created the need for a separate facility. 

Once the United States Supreme Court ruled in Kansas v Hendricks that laws like Wisconsin's were constitutional, the state make the commitment to construct a stand-alone facility that would be secure, yet not duplicate a correctional atmosphere. The new facility would respect not only patient supervision requirements, but also their participation in and need for treatment.

Pooling Experience From Design to Treatment

To create a facility with a delicate balance between security and treatment, a partnership developed between RNL Design, a firm with expertise in criminal justice facilities, and Somerville, Inc., a company specializing in health care buildings. The two architectural firms not only relied on their own experiences, but also on input from treatment professionals, including behavioral scientists and those who would be working on the floor, as to what they felt were important traits of the facility.

'What we are seeing is architecture firms and planners who are trying to understand a lot more about treatment programs to come up with environments that foster the treatment program and successes,' says Florian Walicki, a principal in RNL Design's criminal justice and mental health studio. 'We must take into account those people who work in this setting. There is a high attrition rate, so as a result, the environment has to respond to the staff. Staff [at Sand Ridge] are not in secure bubbles, their offices are on the same floors as patients.'

The state has adopted a treatment program after one currently used in England, developed by Dr. David Thornton, the head of a special unit of Her Majesty's Prison Service, who is leaving his post there to join the Sand Ridge staff. The program consists of a series of modules that the patients must complete before they move on. 

Attention To Different Patient Classifications

The design of the facility takes into account three separate levels of patients, again creating a challenge for the architectural teams with different housing requirements and levels of freedom.

'It's a challenge because you must be able to keep the patient population separate in wings and utilize all different hardware types [between patient levels],' says Thomas Ake, an architect for Somerville. 

Low responsibility/high management patients require a greater deal of staff guidance. Their living units are probably most similar to correctional units, with heavier doors with ankle ports, a concrete bunk and toilet within the room. None of the rooms in the facility featured barred windows. Instead, they feature specialized security windows. Their day room/common area is tiled and their outside recreation area is smaller and surrounded by a 13-foot razor-covered wall.

Medium responsibility/medium management patients have living units with more discreet metal doors and still have toilets within the room. The shower-room facilities for these patients feature less intrusive doors and the day room is similar to those of high management patients, except in a transitional unit that features carpeting. The outdoor recreation area is larger, with a chain link fence surrounding it, allowing patients to see out.

High responsibility/low management patients are patients who are easily dealt with and are allowed the most freedom. They live in rooms similar to college dormitories, with wooden doors, separate bathroom and shower facilities and kitchenettes in their rooms. These patients are at a point where they can transition into the community, so their living atmosphere closely resembles that environment. These patients also have access to a recreation area that includes a greenhouse and garden. 

'We recognize that the development of work skills and ethics are one of the biggest challenges for those incarcerated for a long time and then a commitment period,' says Watters. 'The same sorts of skills we need to teach people for vocational purposes are the skills out patients need to control sex offenses, such as discipline and not distorting the way they see the world.'

Another feature of the facility, the 'treatment mall,' is a meeting place for the units and features therapy and education rooms, a barbershop, patient advocacy offices, a library, gym and recreation/craft area. Controlling movement to this area for medium and low responsibility patients is a sallyport, while high responsibility patients have more freedom to come and go as they want.

'Our concept was to build security into the facility and not apply it,' says Walicki. 'We have an unobtrusive security element highlighted with the ability to maintain good sight lines throughout the facility.'

Responding to Community Concerns

When deciding where to place the facility, the then-governor of Wisconsin made it clear that it would not be constructed in a community that did not want it. When Mauston stepped forward as a location for the facility, architects and designers had to take into account the concerns of the public.

'For the general public, if you are going to build this in their backyard, you need to assure them that patients are not going to walk out of the facility and not hurt their family,' says Walicki. 

While great attention was paid to making the outside of the facility have a campus feel of a college and internal security within each building, the public wanted additional security around the perimeter. To respond to their concerns, the facility is surrounded by fence as well as by a 24-hour mobile patrol road.

'The concept was clear - create a building perimeter that was secure as well as internally to keep staff safe,' says Walicki.

The State of Florida currently has an RFP out for a design-build solution for sexual predators, modeled largely after Sand Ridge, according to Walicki. The American Institute of Architects has also recognized it as a 1999-200 Citation Winner. While the facility will be the first of many of its kind, Walicki is also quick to point out that it is not the perfect solution.

'Is this a good example - yes,' says Walicki. 'Is it the perfect model - no. I think that will only emerge through use and experience and as these facilities are developed. There is still a lot of tweaking and massaging to be done. I think given the fact that this will be one of the first new facilities for this population, others will watch it.'


Thomas Ake, AIA, Somerville, Inc., (920) 437-8136

Florian Walicki, principal, criminal justice and mental health studio, RNL Design, (303) 295-1717

Steven Watters, Director, Sand Ridge Treatment Facility, (608) 266-1865


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