Borrowed Light: The Natural Way to Improve Direct Supervision

Envision this: Within two years of a correctional facility’s construction, staff and inmate attitudes have soared; construction and operational costs have been reduced; security and conditions of confinement have improved; and the facility’s presence has improved area property values, boosted local business and become a symbol of community pride.

Pipe dream? No; it is reality and it exists in the form of King County Regional Justice Center (RJC) in Kent, Wash. RJC showcases significant advances and a promising new direction for direct-supervision facility planning and design, while actually reducing costs. The secret: “borrowed light.”

Light Changes Picture

Borrowed light is a design and facility planning approach that uses natural light to flood dayrooms and deliver filtered light to cells and other locations in detention and correctional facilities.

The concept originated about 20 years ago when the Alaska Department of Corrections and the architectural firm, Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (HOK), were trying to address lighting challenges presented by a geographic location characterized by six months of darkness and six months of daylight. During the past two decades, other jurisdictions realized that the borrowed light approach had additional and better applications in the lower 48 states for improving operations and confinement conditions, while reducing costs. Since then, HOK has completed 12 borrowed light facilities and others are being constructed nationwide. RJC is the most recent and best example of this approach.

The borrowed light approach to facility design applies the American Correctional Association’s (ACA) standard for “access to natural light” by turning the facility inward. This process involves four elements:

* Providing individual exercise yards for each dayroom (typically comprising at least 48 beds), which serves as both a security perimeter and dayroom light source.

* Flooding dayrooms with sunlight from large, low-security windows between the dayroom and exercise yard;

* Eliminating expensive exterior cell windows; and

* Providing larger, less expensive windows between cells and the dayroom that allow cells to borrow natural light from the dayroom.

Combining these conditions has a remarkably positive domino effect on costs, conditions of confinement and direct-supervision operations.

King County RJC

Located in Kent, a small suburb of Seattle, RJC is a large complex with 23 courtrooms, a jail that holds approximately 1,388 inmates in 896 cells, a central plant and a 750-space parking garage. The complex, completed in 1997, is surrounded by baseball and soccer fields, a community and senior citizens’ center, and a struggling downtown business district. Also, hundreds of homes are located just blocks away. Residents and politicians were concerned about how such a large justice complex could be safely, functionally and aesthetically placed in the heart of their community.

Advantages Shine

Not only does the borrowed light approach improve conditions for staff and inmates, it also is less expensive than the traditional approach — by about 18 percent in the case of RJC housing.

Without exterior windows, each cell does not need an exterior wall. As a result, cells can be arranged with a common plumbing, electrical and mechanical chase, reducing costs and allowing staff to maintain mechanical systems without entering inmate areas. With one dayroom wall as the only exterior housing unit wall, the exterior wall area for each housing unit is reduced to one-third of what it would have been, producing significant energy savings. With housing modules needing only one exterior dayroom wall, housing units can be laid out back-to-back or “egg-crated.” Site and engineering requirements and construction costs, thereby are reduced and some facilities can be low-rise, instead of mid-rise, such as RJC. With larger interior windows between cells and the dayroom, staff are better able to spot assault or suicide attempts. And without exterior cell windows, escape, contraband or communication attempts are virtually eliminated.

Community Benefits

The residents liked that all inmate areas would face exercise yards in the middle of the facility and that no inmate windows would face outward toward the street. The design also meant that three sides of the entire detention facility could be directly abutted and further insulated from the surrounding community by the parking garage, courthouse and central plant. The side that is not as insulated is a blank, attractively landscaped wall. Physical, visual or acoustical contact is not possible at RIG between the public and inmates. With the entire detention center visible only from the air, it is out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

The courthouse component, on the other hand, is intentionally quite the opposite. The tall and imposing building faces Mount Rainier. The ground in front is filled in and sloped up an entire level toward the entry, creating a sweeping lawn. This allowed the courthouse basement holding area to be at the same level as the detention center inmate corridor, eliminating the need for and subsequent cost of a tunnel or bridge connection.

The prominent and traditional courthouse and the detention center were carefully planned to open directly toward the downtown area, which, not surprisingly, resulted in a resurgence of commercial activity.

Local Economic Benefits

Although many residents were concerned property values would plummet with construction of RJC, the actual price of homes within eight blocks of the jail increased by 15 percent each year after project completion. While the higher prices are due, in part, to a robust economy, other comparable areas experienced lower increases.

Also, a local real estate agent found that the people who owned commercial real estate across from the RIG would not sell because they did not believe the full increase in their property value had yet been realized. (It had increased by 30 percent in two years.) Further, a new building was constructed downtown to accommodate 70 defense attorney offices associated with RJC.

Thanks to RJC’s presence, with staff, jurors, visitors, witnesses and attorneys spending money downtown, economic activity has increased by $2 million per year. For many, the center itself has become a destination: Art exhibits and civic and social events are held in the courthouse rotunda and weddings are performed on the front lawn.

Operational Benefits

The effect of borrowed light on staff has been remarkably positive. Directing natural light into the dayroom where staff work made them more alert and interactive with one another and their supervisors, and improved their attitudes toward their jobs.

The borrowed light design had additional positive effects. With large windows in cells, officers could easily view and supervise inmates while they were in their cells and the dayroom. Cell inspections were more easily conducted and walk-by inspections took less time because correctional officers did not have to stop in front of each door and peer through a slender pane of glass, as is the case in many jails.

Having no cell windows to the outside greatly enhanced security because it prevents inmates from flashing passers-by and inmates’ friends and family from communicating with them. Also, with two secure walls in lieu of exterior inmate windows, contraband and escape attempts are greatly reduced.

Maintenance personnel can work in secure pipe chases behind cells rather than entering dayrooms. Also, tools do not have to be brought into inmate areas and it takes less time to complete tasks, saving time and money. Further, housing units are more economical to heat and cool because of the thermos-bottle effect of two outside walls.

Lighting in the dayroom is turned down on sunny days, due to natural light flooding in, thereby saving electricity — a timely benefit with energy conservation and rising costs a current societal issue.

The dayroom is bathed in natural light on two sides. The exercise yards always are located on the south side of the dayroom and the dayroom ceiling is sloped upward to capture the maximum amount of sunlight. Notably, despite extensive use of security glass, there have been only five damaged windows in two years — a small price for the benefits of abundant natural light.

RJC also uses borrowed light in the receiving and discharge area, where it has been equally successful. In most jails, staff are isolated inside, unable to tell night from day, or experience the positive effects of daylight.

How to Learn More

Just as King County officials visited the first borrowed light facility in Alaska, many officials from other jurisdictions have visited to see firsthand the most recent borrowed light iteration. Along with the community, RJC officials are proud of this latest advancement in direct-supervision design and planning.

Ray Coleman is former facility commander of the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent, Wash., and past president of the American Jail Association. Chuck Oraftik is director of justice architecture at Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, in San Francisco.


(1.) For more about ACA’s standard, see “Standards for Physical Plants: When Correct Is Not Right,” by Michael Frawley and Dan Corsentino in the August 2000 Corrections Today.

A Short History of Direct-Supervision Facility Design

A Promising Start

During the past two decades, there has been much advancement in the application and sophistication of direct-supervision operations. But direct-supervision supporters agree there are several critical factors for it to thrive — facility design and planning is one. Unfortunately, there has been virtually no progress in direct-supervision facility planning and design due almost exclusively to cost concerns in fact, there even has been some backsliding.

It is true that there have been substantial facility design changes, but when closely examined, nearly all appear to be cost-driven. Primarily intended to lower initial costs and increase staff efficiency, these changes have not increased safety, aided positive behavior reinforcement or advanced other direct-super-vision operational principles.

Beginning in the 1970s after a long period of neglect, the nation experienced a boom in prison and jail construction. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was at the forefront of this new generation of facilities and in the process, also experimented with new operational approaches. What eventually became known as direct supervision was refined and used at many of the new federal facilities. At that time BOP and its architects produced three metropolitan detention centers in Chicago. New York and San Diego that were specifically designed to facilitate direct-supervision operations. These landmark facilities became the best examples of direct-supervision operations and facility design.

Almost immediately, several jurisdictions concluded that these three landmark federal detention centers would be ideal models for new local detention facilities in their communities. These new county facilities were similar to their federal counterparts in both operations and design. In subsequent years, countless additional direct-supervision facilities have been programmed, designed, constructed, and delivered and operated across the nation at the county, state and federal levels.

During the past two decades, direct-supervision operational philosophies and techniques have been refined and improved, and also adapted for small, old-style and special population facilities. However, when compared to the three original metropolitan detention centers and the first county facilities, it seems that, with few exceptions, there has been no progress from a facility design viewpoint.

Nipped in the Bud

Around 1980 just as direct-supervision facilities began to proliferate, there was a major shift in the nation’s attitude toward how resources should be allocated in the private and public sectors. “Better, faster cheaper,” could be heard all over. Chrysler, IBM and other private sector firms faced near-death experiences. Government was no exception. California’s Proposition 13 which drastically cut county tax bases spread across the nation like wildfire. An aroused public was promised deregulation, no new taxes and the end of big government. All levels of government were left with the difficulty of delivering more with less and jails traditionally have been near the bottom of the funding list.

Under pressure from politicians, taxpayer groups and government accountants, the number of beds for each housing unit increased from 36 to 48 to 64 and often more. There also has been gradual removal or degradation of the finishes, materials and furnishings in the facilities that had helped create a more normal, stress-free environment for inmates and staff. For example have-duty dayroom carpeting that provided much-needed acoustical dampening is rarely found today.

About 20 years after the euphoria of the federal metropolitan detention centers and the first county facilities designed specifically for direct- and indirect-supervision facilities have become — step by small step — very similar in appearance and atmosphere. The quality of direct-supervision facilities has simply not advanced. It is true they are cheaper and more efficient, but they are not better for staff and inmates. However, the borrowed light approach exemplified by the King County RJC is a compelling exception and offers new and better direction for direct-supervision design and planning as well, as lower cost.

Historical Hindsight:

In the not-too-distant past, in order to comply with ACA’s standard of access to natural light, architects typically had placed exterior windows in cells, and few, if any, in dayrooms to appease belt-tightening clients. But that design approach runs counter to modern direct-supervision detention or correctional facility operations. During the day when the sun is up, the majority of inmates are out of their cells. The only times inmates are in their cells are when it is dark outside and/or they are trying to sleep. It seems, that for years, architects and their clients had it backward. To improve confinement conditions, natural light should be provided where both inmates and staff actually can use it – in the day-room, not the cell. As opposed to much of what’s happened to direct-supervision facilities during the past two decades, this can make facilities better and less expensive.

Corrections Today authors: Ray Coleman and Chuck Oraftik (ISSN: 0190-2563), Vol. 63 No. 2 Pg. 97. 04/01/2001.