Intelligent Design

How your workplace is designed can have a big impact on how things get done.

The importance of designing workplaces with both efficiency and an agency's mission in mind was driven home at a recent congressional hearing featuring, of all people, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Harley Lappin, who rose through the prison system's ranks to become director in 2003, explained how the bureau has grappled with the massive growth in the inmate population-from 26,000 prisoners in 1980 to 201,000 today-without a commensurate growth in the number of guards watching them. Ten years ago, the employee-to-inmate ratio was 1-to-3.57. Today, the ratio is 1-to-4.92. That means Lappin is responsible for more prisoners with a proportionately smaller workforce.

To get back to the higher employee ratio, Lappin says prisons would have to hire 9,000 more employees on top of the 35,000 already working for the bureau. Put bluntly, that ain't happening. The most he is hoping for in this current budget-limiting time for non-defense agencies is 1,200 additional employees. But Lappin said he doesn't need to get up to the 1997 ratio anyway. Why? Prisons are being designed more efficiently now than they were in the past, meaning fewer guards are needed to watch over the growing inmate population. For example, recreation yards at newer prisons are contained in courtyards surrounded by buildings, rather than on the perimeter near fences. That makes it a lot tougher for inmates to escape.

Similarly, federal prisons are looking to move away from guard towers to using "stun-lethal" electrified fences, which can be rigged to daze escapees the first time they touch them, and kill them the second time. That's a strong deterrent. "We went and assessed those locations [with towers], looked at the operations that occurred there for 15, 20 years and realized that they could provide the same level of security at those locations without manning the towers," Lappin told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies on March 12. "This is a technology advancement that we think has merit, that we think would continue to run safe and secure prisons, not jeopardize the community. So we are firmly behind the stun-lethal . . . because we think it's a more efficient way to operate the prisons."

Lappin pointed out that the towers are less useful now that exercise yards are in courtyards. There's no reason to have a guard tower with no view of the inmates on a prison's perimeter.

Facility design can be a life-and-death matter for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Lappin also noted at the hearing that the more crowded a prison is, the higher the rate of assaults by inmates on both other inmates and on prison employees. Right now, prisons are 20 percent more crowded than Lappin's target of housing two prisoners in a standard-size cell. One-third of federal prisons are more than 50 years old, so they are more expensive to maintain. In addition, they are not designed with some of the efficiencies of newer prisons that allow smaller guard-to-prisoner ratios. Asked by Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., whether it wouldn't be more efficient to close older prisons and replace them with new ones, Lappin agreed. "We certainly have to prioritize very cautiously funding for modernization repair because of the number of older prisons and the costs of reconstruction and modernization," he said. "It's an area that we really have to prioritize well."

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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