It’s big. It’s tough. It’s a technological marvel. And the only way in or out is with permission. Welcome to the North Branch Correctional Institution (NBCI), the “largest, newest, and most technologically advanced maximum-security prison being built in the United States today.”
NBCI, scheduled for completion in 2007, is being built as an inverted fortress, a structure with a 360-degree view of the prison and the strength to ensure the futility of escape. With security measures such as 15 miles of ravenous razor wire, over a thousand silently efficient steel doors, over 200 remote-controlled cameras, and state-of-the-art control centers, security officers can safely maintain over 2000 violent criminals without carrying weapons.”
“This is possibly the most efficient, proficient, state-of-the-art correctional facility in the world,” declared Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich at a ceremony announcing funding for NBCI’s third phase. “It’s a cliché, but it’s the truth. Public service is all about public safety. It’s job one. If you don’t have a public safe from fear, safe from crime, obviously, you’ve got a problem. NBCI will help us meet our obligation to maintain public safety while addressing the need to rehabilitate inmates and reduce recidivism.”
A component of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS), NBCI is located in Cumberland , Maryland . Sited next to the medium-security Western Correction Institution (WCI), NBCI fulfills DPSCS’s need to create maximum-security space for a growing prison population. But DPSCS did not want to just add space. This staff-efficient, maximum-security facility also offers a complete program of services—such as counseling, training, and medical care—through a unit-management approach. For DPSCS, NBCI represents a comprehensive solution.
Boasting four 256-cell housing units, the $168 million NBCI was designed to be completed in three phases (two phases are already complete). The inverted-fortress design provides a 360-degree view of the prison from the master control tower (MCT). In fact, the MCT’s ventilation air ducts rise from underneath the windows and are returned through the console cabinets in the center of the tower room to preserve the completely unobstructed view. (As a secondary benefit, this design keeps electronic equipment from overheating during the summer.)
The NBCI support services building (SSB) has kitchen and storage facilities large enough to accommodate both the staff and the inmate population. It also contains space for administration, security, visiting, education, commissary, chapel, and multipurpose functions. Each of these areas provides inmate support and program spaces in compliance with the state’s operational requirements for a safe and secure environment for staff, visitors, and inmates.
NBCI’s perimeter security system features razor wire, motion detectors, and a curvilinear fence (a fence that is slanted inward so that gravity forces any would-be climber to drop to the ground). In addition, patrols regularly check the perimeter’s integrity.
Inside, more than 1,000 efficient, pneumatically operated, remote-controlled steel doors enhance operational safety and security. The cells were made from precast concrete and assembled on site. But there are no steel bars in sight; cell doors are made of polycarbonate ballistic-resistant glass. Providing full visibility and protection, these doors can absorb the energy of a bullet fired from an M-16 rifle and maintain complete integrity. More than 200 remote-controlled cameras silently and unobtrusively enhance protection and observation as well. By virtually every measure, NBCI is the most technologically advanced, program-responsive, maximum-security facility ever designed. How did it get that way?
“NBCI was originally planned as a south compound of WCI. In fact, it was going to be the mirror image of WCI. But our needs changed,” explains David N. Bezanson, assistant secretary for DPSCS. “With the need for maximum-security housing growing substantially, we changed our design approach. We wanted to find a new model that could meet those needs while being more compact and staff efficient. We also wanted to provide more services in a unit-management approach: counseling, training, medical services, etc., delivered at the housing-unit level. So we looked around the country and saw that our designer, the designer of WCI, was constructing two state-of-the-art maximum-security prisons in Virginia .
“We visited those facilities three times, and applied some of those design elements to create a new model for Maryland . The development of NBCI evolved into a 256-cell maximum-security housing unit with a second-floor control center that allows a single officer to control 128 cells from one control room. This new approach is different from the 192-cell compact housing unit that we had built previously. The old approach didn’t have sufficient space for support services. The new model gave us the ability to deliver those services while limiting inmate movement.
“Of course, inmates must engage in a certain amount of movement. So we designed the support services building to incorporate that requirement. NBCI is designed in a star pattern; everything goes out from the center, where the housing units are located. The SSB splits that pattern down the center. By design, that means limited movement around a core center that supports four housing units. For us, that design was an inspiration. It gave us space for the programs we need and it allowed us to create staff efficiencies. And we’re always looking for staff efficiencies.”
To be completed in 2007, NBCI will have taken more than a decade to move from initial concept through design and final construction. While such a time frame is not unusual in the world of corrections, programs that stretch over a decade or more often face significant challenges. Much can change in the course of a decade. In Maryland , for example, the program spanned three different governors and considerable changes in the political will of the people. Such changes can make long-term, strategic corrections planning difficult. But “difficult” does not mean “impossible.”
“A great deal of credit goes to David Bezanson and his people at DPSCS,” explains DMJM H&N project manager Michael Murphy. And he would know; DMJM H&N has been providing architectural and engineering services for both WCI and NBCI for almost 15 years. “Governor Ehrlich deserves considerable credit as well for his outstanding support. It’s difficult to sustain a long-term corrections program, particularly one that was inherited from a previous administration. They’ve done a remarkable job with it. When designing for correctional needs, it is important to remember that those needs often change. The real success we’ve had in creating this program speaks to the close partnership that David Bezanson and DPSCS shared with the design team over all these years.”
“Corrections often feels like a hidden service of government. Few people know exactly how it works, understand it, or know the issues involved in it,” explains DMJM H&N justice principal Susan Keegan Gary. “Usually people just want inmates out of the way, out of sight, and out of mind. That makes DPSCS’s job that much harder. Add changing demographics and funding concerns, and the job becomes even harder. So we always try to be very sensitive to that, to the fact that this is a unique collaboration that must address long-term strategic planning, funding-sensitive phasing, flexibility, and a host of other tactical and strategic issues. Design is always important, and you’ve definitely got to bring innovative solutions to the table. But the most important element, by far, is a strong, effective, working partnership that can handle the vagaries of a constantly evolving situation.”
To date, that partnership has reaped great rewards. Through WCI and NBCI, DPSCS has helped Maryland address its growing prison population with secure, state-of-the-art facilities that also offer innovative programs to reduce recidivism. With NBCI in particular, though, it seems that DPSCS has a rising star on its hands.