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The Troubling Practice of Turning Semi-Trailers Into Jails

Facing a shortage of space for inmates, Missouri's Greene County Jail opted to build an insta-prison in the parking lot. Is that OK?

A few years ago, the Greene County Jail, an imposing concrete building in Springfield, Missouri, ran out of space. Local police officers were arresting more people than the 601-bed structure could contain.

At first, Sheriff Jim Arnott, an upbeat man with a Missouri twang, tried to squeeze more beds into each jail cell. "You always put as many people as you can in a space," Arnott told me. "You don't ever have an adequate amount." Eventually, the sheriff began to outsource inmates to neighboring jails, which he said is both costly and risky.

He found what he considered a solution, in the parking lot. He told his officers to find somewhere new to park, and he asked local companies to design a temporary jail right there on the blacktop. A first-time jail contractor turned the parking lot into a kind of jail-in-a-box: six modified semi-trailers. "Like they haul meat and stuff in," Arnott said. Three of the trailers are packed from floor-to-ceiling with stainless steel bunk beds.

"There is nothing out there like this," he told me. "This is the first of its kind."

The semi-trailer jail may be a new invention, but it's hardly the first time that the utilitarian equipment of global commerce has been creatively repurposed by designers: In recent years, homes, hotels, museums, and even hydroponic farms have been constructed from shipping containers. These heavy-duty boxes, made from corrugated steel and typically transported by train and ship, are shorter and simpler than most semi-trailers, and they've proved to be popular building blocks for industrial-chic containerized architecture. But shipping containers and semi-trailers have also caught on in the industry of incarceration: In at least five countries, shipping containers have held inmates—at times in defiance of basic jail standards.

Among the first examples of a container prison was Canning Vale Prison in Western Australia. In 1999, the local government installed windows, shelves, and televisions inside two-dozen secondhand shipping containers. But as places to house people—voluntarily or otherwise—shipping containers are less than ideal. "These are metal boxes, which are designed to go to sea," said Australian architect and criminologist Elizabeth Grant, who has studied the design of hundreds of correctional institutions. The containers soon corroded, and, without insulation, they provided little protection from cold or heat. "You've got people in metal boxes sitting out in extreme weather."

Three years later, the United States took up the practice. In 2002, at the dawn of the so-called War on Terror, the U.S. military confined suspected terrorists in containers surrounded by concertina wire in Afghanistan and the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. The ad-hoc structures arguably amplified the mistreatment and torture of prisoners. One British man who practiced Islam said he was confined to a container for more than a year and a half, alone; to distract from his isolation and desperation, he would bang his head against the wall. "It was quite horrific accommodation," Grant said.

Guantánamo's makeshift cells were ultimately retired, but several prisons in New Zealand and Australia continued to employ the technique, fitting basic amenities in containers so that a few inmates could live inside each. Some shipping container manufacturers advertise incarceration as a potential use for their products.

Arnott's semi-trailer jail is a bit different: Its creator is Anthony Kelly, a small business owner in Seymour, Missouri, who started out in the tent rental industry. A military contract helped his early ventures grow. "We started providing them showers, and then that led to housing and laundry," Kelly told me. In 2006, he formed Kelly & Co. 1st Responders, which outfitted semi-trailers with bunk beds, showers, and phones. The custom trailers have housed hundreds of emergency workers, for example after hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Then, last year, Kelly learned of overcrowding in Missouri jails and pitched his semi-trailers as temporary solution, while voters and local leaders weighed building an expansion facility as a more permanent fix. Initially, Greene County Sheriff Arnott was skeptical that the trailers would be sturdy enough to house his inmates, but Kelly provided a new design with a largely stainless-steel interior. His new company, All Detainment Solutions, LLC, won the contract. The county will rent the insta-jail for just under $900,000 per year for the first two years, with the possibility for renewal after that.

The six semi-trailers are lined up in a square-shaped area, with space for a central covered courtyard. They're insulated, air-conditioned, and separated by use: three for sleeping, two for recreation and restrooms, and one for phone calls and visits. "These units are kind of like Legos," Kelly said. "We can keep adding." Since installation, several other police departments have since expressed interest in renting similar facilities, he told me. "We're in conversation with probably a dozen different counties."

Some states have strict regulatory standards that might get in the way of Kelly's business model, but not Missouri. "In Missouri, there is no jail standard," Arnott told me. State oversight is limited: A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch story found that Missouri inspectors had spotty access to local jails, and their recommendations carried little weight. As long as jails meet building codes that apply to all structures, the state essentially allows sheriffs to house inmates under whatever conditions they consider reasonable.

Several recent lawsuits have criticized conditions at the main Greene County Jail: one by a transgender woman who said she was strip-searched because of her gender identity, and at least two by Muslim inmates who alleged religious discrimination. A state auditor is also looking into whether the county misused public funds to advocate for a recently passed tax, a portion of which would be used to fund the jail expansion. While addressing the issue in late December, Arnott led local reporters on a tour of new trailer jail, which by then was housing 108 inmates—its maximum capacity. One inmate told the Springfield News-Leader that he preferred the newer facility to the main jail, because the mattresses were more comfortable.

Still, the semi-trailer jail appears to fall well short of several widely accepted standards. For example, the American Correctional Association, or ACA, tells sheriffs in its "Core Jail Standards" that all rooms should have windows that provide natural light—which, according to Arnott, the sleeping trailers lack. The United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, have similar language. ACA guidelines also require that, when jail cells house multiple inmates, they "provide 25 square feet of unencumbered space per occupant." The sleeping trailers can house 36 inmates each, which translates into 12.5 square feet per inmate—much of which is taken up by bunk beds.

When I asked Kelly about the square footage of the jail he designed, he said that the structure met international building codes, and any other standards were just recommendations. He refused to talk further about specifics, on the grounds that competitors might try to copy his design. Later in the conversation, when I asked again whether he could clarify the dimensions of the jail, he hung up on me.

It's not hard to see why such facilities might appeal to cash-strapped officials: money. Arnott said the county spends more than $50 per day to house each inmate, of which Missouri only reimburses $21. This shortfall makes local leaders eager to cut costs. The sheriff added that the lease agreement holds the contractor, not the county, responsible if technical problems arise. In addition to being relatively cheap to operate, the facility is flexible, easy to scale up or down, and removable. "If there's an issue, something that fails, it's a leased program—we don't own it," Arnott said.

Elizabeth Grant, the criminologist and architect, offered another explanation. She often hears the argument that jail conditions should be harsh. "A lot of the public believes that the prison should be punishment," she said. Grant finds this notion troubling, particularly when it comes to local jails, where the vast majority of jail inmates are pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted or sentenced. "As architects, we're not there to punish people."

The design of jails and prisons, Grant added, may say more about the people who built them than the people who are forced to live inside. "Providing a trailer to put people into basically says, 'We don't care about those people anymore,'" she said. "I think that's a really, really sad state for society to be in."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.