A prison block is a specific wing of the prison. Each block usually is designed to be self-contained and can be sealed off from the rest of the prison, which helps guards manage security. Most of a prison's cell blocks are for the general population. There's also a central processing block that holds new inmates, and a maximum-security unit that holds prisoners who have been placed under temporary lockdown. The cell blocks can have multiple tiers and are arranged around a central space, which usually contains a security booth, or control room. Some designs also place the blocks back to back to be monitored by perimeter guards. Modern technology has added to cell-block surveillance capabilities.
The arrangement and number of cell blocks really depends on needs such as supervision and breakdown of the inmates' classifications (for example, minimum security, maximum security, etc.). Prisons might have separate blocks for inmates with special needs, such as mental health issues, or for geriatric prisoners. Those designing prison blocks, or housing units, might need to consider not only physical barriers between some groups, but sound separation to prevent harassment [source: NICIC]. Designers also consider views inmates have of one another, as well as the view corrections staff has of the prisoners, when designing cell blocks.
Prison conditions have improved considerably since the 18th century. In those days, prisons were not only dirty and overcrowded, but there were no blocks or cells for individual prisoners. The prisoners were crowded together in large cells and even shackled in irons. Many had to find their own food, often by begging prison passersby [source: Bedfordshire Schools]. Today, it's standard for inmates to have about 25 square feet (2.3 square meters) of unencumbered space per inmate [source: Goldman].
Design handbooks from the National Institute of Corrections help small local, regional and larger prison facilities review their designs and evaluate them for safety and security, appropriate staffing, space and functionality and other specifics to determine how well the design works.
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