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The ADA's Growing Influence On Correctional Construction and Design
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor
Published: 03/12/2001

Since its inception over a decade ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has created challenges for architects and designers of justice facilities. While the act has made an impact on the way new structures are built, there is no body in place to ensure compliance, nor are details or guidance for such offered in the text. Those involved in the planning and building process still strive to meet the guidelines largely created for public and private spaces, while at the same time meeting security needs.

'ADA has become the comfortable ole' shoe in the design of correctional facilities in that the designers have accepted that each housing unit and all the accompanying spaces have to meet not-so-well-defined criteria,' says Stephen Carter, Chair of the American Correctional Association's Facility Design Committee.

Carter, who is also the Founding Principal of Carter Goble Associates, Inc., a professional planning and design firm, believes that while ADA is not a major focus in corrections due to requirements now in place in most jurisdictions, there are still no hard and fast rules as to what one must do.

'There are federal guidelines with numbers like one to two percent of the population should be able to be accommodated in an ADA compliant cell,' he says. 'We know what it takes to make a cell compliant. The challenge then, is how many should we provide. No one says 'thou shalt have so many cells ADA compliant.' Most jurisdictions have made one cell per housing unit as a general rule of thumb.'

The ADA's Affect on Justice Facilities

To respond to the unique needs of justice facilities, the Access Board, an independent Federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities, has issued a supplement to its ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), that specifically covers prisons and jails. The new requirements clarify how accessibility criteria for new construction and alterations are to be applied to these facilities. Included in the guidelines are exemptions regarding elevators and stairs, changes surrounding suicide prevention and doors operated solely by security personnel.

'The prison industry had some concerns about how access requirements would be applied, which it outlined in comments to the Board during public comments periods in the rule making process,' says Dave Yanchulis, an Accessibility Specialist for the Board. 'We took these comments into account in finalizing the new guidelines. The guidelines are focused on the design and construction of new prisons and jails and afford greater discretion in the realm of alterations.'

Currently, these ADAAG amendments, which are still under review, are not yet part of the enforceable standards maintained by the Department of Justice (DOJ) under the ADA. To view the guidelines, go to:

The guidelines are intended primarily for new construction and altered portions or additions to existing facilities. Access issues regarding existing prisons, as well as existing state and local government facilities, are subject to ADA requirements for 'program access,' addressed in the DOJ regulations, not the Board's guidelines.

'Program access allows alternatives, including operational solutions in existing facilities, whereas new facilities are subject to design criteria spelled out in the ADAAG,' says Yanchulis. 'In short, prison operators would have more flexibility in terms of design solutions in retrofitting an existing facility under 'program access' than they would in the design of a new facility.'

One of the more noteworthy aspects of the new guidelines is the reduction of the number of handicap accessible cells from five percent to two percent. In 1984, the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS) established that five percent of all cells in federal prisons, as well as state and local prisons that receive federal funds, be handicap accessible. The Board settled for two percent based on the comments and data it received in the rule making process.

According to Yanchulis, state and local government entities currently have a choice under the ADA in using either the UFAS or ADAAG in the construction and alteration of facilities. ADAAG, as originally published in 1991, was issued under the ADA for private sector facilities subject to the law. The Board's plan was to supplement ADAAG to specifically cover state and local government facilities so that there would be a single set of design criteria under the ADA for the private sector, covered by Title III, and the state and local government sector, covered by Title II. The new prison guidelines are part of the supplement to ADAAG the Board developed for state and local government facilities.

'Under the ADA, corrections departments, like other state and local government entities, cannot discriminate against persons with disabilities,' says Yanchulis. 'The guidelines have the potential to reduce headaches in the future by ensuring that adequate accessibility is provided at the outset when a facility is designed and built.'

Finding Solutions To Meet All Concerns

From the beginning of the design phase for its new Seneca Correctional Facility, the Montgomery County (Maryland) Department of Corrections has been addressing both environmental issues, and ADA requirements, and found a mutual solution. The site for the new facility is environmentally sensitive due to drainage issues and therefore, couldn't be stacked up too high. Administrators also had bad experiences with elevators in the past and stressed an alternative way to access upper housing pods. There was one solution that met everyone's needs: ramps.

'What is unusual about this facility is the use of long ramps [between the upper and lower housing pods], thus eliminating the need for elevators,' says architect James Kessler from the architecture firm Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, Inc. (HOK). 'We were able to eliminate elevators and it was not impractical to go with ramps in a facility that has two levels. It was an all around, good solution. These ramps addressed ADA issues with a creative response.'

In addition, the ramps not only allow officers to respond quickly, but also are practical for food carts as well.

Another issue facing the designers and architects was the placement of control rooms. According to Kessler, there is a clear advantage or having the rooms higher for observation purposes as well as for indicating authority between officer and inmate.

'In the end, we decided to put the control rooms down on the floor, to be accessed by the disabled and keep our options open,' he says. 'Besides the needs of inmates, we also keep in mind staff. They could be injured on the job, say with a broken leg and in a wheelchair for example. Why shouldn't they be able to sit in the control room - an appropriate spot for them.'

The county government is the general contractor on the project and has worked with HOK from the beginning of the design phase to insure that all of their concerns were being met.

'All the ADA issues have been resolved and the building has been designed to comply,' says Sandra Batterden, the facility's Project Manger from the Department of Public Works and Transportation. 'The existing facility was originally built in the 1960's, with major building additions each decade, so it is a full evolution of construction, design and the ADA.'

Batterden adds that the county's concern was for each individual who would come in and out of the prison and each space had to be analyzed. For example, since they have a food service contractor, it was essential that the kitchen be accessible for any of their employees that are handicapped.

'The remedy for needs not being met is a civil suit,' says Kessler. 'There are no sanctions within the ADA itself. As jurisdictions build facilities, they are constantly evaluating the risk of litigation.'

The Montgomery County DOC is familiar with ADA issues, having reached a comprehensive agreement with the DOJ regarding a hearing impaired inmate. According to Director Arthur Wallenstein, the department learned a very good lesson without serious incident.

'We learned to assume that an impaired person could not hear even when they appeared to understand - their desire to appear the same as other persons and to engage the disability until medical determinations were clear in either direction,' says Wallenstein. 'The focus is on engaging the disability through appropriate accommodation rather than seeking a method to disprove that it exists or hoping that a troublesome disability situation is quickly resolved through discharge. Our case was a learning experience in Montgomery County and staff responded very well and now we have far better keys and process issues to assist.'

He adds that the need to plan both physical plants and programs to ensure compliance and the flexibility to move as new issues arise is now part of the 'correctional management playbook' and statements of basic minimum standards.

'It is not an imposition - it is the law and it is part of appropriate and humane correctional practice,' says Wallenstein. 'This is a combination of facility design and program accommodation availability across several different options. It is another challenge- albeit a very important one as corrections evolves as part of the larger society.'

Accessibility Issues On the Horizon

While architects and designers focus on the needs of correctional facilities today under the ADA, they are also looking to the future. The ACA's Facility Design Committee is currently focused on health care, mental health and special needs inmates and designing for them. They are looking at examples of best practices across the nation to share with corrections practitioners.

'For hearing-impaired inmates, for example, there is difficulty to communicate because of background noise levels,' says Carter, who also sat on the ACA's Acoustics Committee. 'While facilities have focused on wheelchair and crutch-bound inmates, they could give greater attention to hearing and sight disabilities that corrections don't do as good as a job as they do to meet requirements.'

Another population that everyone involved with corrections is keeping a keen eye on is the growing number of older inmates. From the weight of doors to the possibility of increased use of wheelchairs, the structural and design issues that accompany this population are well recognized.

'It's common sense that administrators are smart enough to realize that populations are getting older and inmates can get hurt and need wheelchairs,' adds architect Barbara Nadel. 'It's smart policy to have at least some cells that can accommodate wheelchairs in a housing unit and support programs. Sooner or later, there will be an inmate who'll need them. When they enter your facility, you are going to have to find a way to accommodate them.'

Carter adds that security is less of an issue with geriatric and hospice inmates and that the real focus is on the comfort and care of these individuals, a theory that many are recognizing.

While looking toward the future, however, there is optimism in the current power of the ADA and the influence it has already had on those building justice facilities.

'The good thing is that ADA has really institutionalized the thinking of architects and designers,' says Carter. 'Whether it is a school or a prison, [accommodating the disabled] is the first thing to address after the concept. It's as second nature as the attention to life safety codes.'


Sandra Batterden, Program Manager, Montgomery County Department of Public Works and Transportation, (301) 601-1630

Stephen Carter, Chair, ACA Facility Design Committee, Founding Principal, Carter Goble Associates, Inc., (803) 765-2833

James Kessler, AIA, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, Inc.,

(202) 339-8700

Barbara Nadel, FAIA, Barbara Nadel Architect, (718) 793-7106

Arthur Wallenstein, Director, Montgomery County Department of Corrections, (240) 777-9975

Dave Yanchulis, Accessibility Specialist, Access Board,


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