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Fentress Blog




Apples and Oranges: Separating Prisoners and the Public in Your Courthouse

by Alan Ruby / March 17, 2016


Although unnerving, it is not an uncommon occurrence for me to meet up with prisoners (in-custody defendants) face-to-face while waiting for an elevator in courthouses. Typically, when this happens, the elevator doors open and I am directed by court security personnel to step aside while the prisoners are escorted out of the elevator. I have been in many courthouses where the jingling of shackles is a sign to clear public hallways as prisoners pass to and from courtrooms. These occurrences are all too common in courthouses but, as presented in this blog, there are measures that can be taken to make courthouses more secure, even if separate circulation pathways cannot be accommodated in the facility.

A Critical Design Feature

Having secure and separate circulation patterns for judges, court employees, prisoners, and the public is the single most important security design feature of a contemporary courthouse. Unfortunately, it is often the most problematically deficient characteristic of many older and historic courthouses.

The Fentress database shows that of the nearly 1,000 total court facilities that we have assessed to date, 61% of those facilities do not have circulation patterns to courtrooms that provide secure, completely separate access for judges, court personnel, prisoners, jury members, and the public.

In older courthouses, and particularly in historic courthouses, it may be architecturally or structurally impossible to remediate deficient circulation conditions. Inflexible overall courthouse layouts or immovable masonry bearing walls may preclude any improvement. Still, it is essential that secure circulation be provided for the protection of all individuals present in these courthouses. Fortunately, there are acceptable and effective options to avoid a convicted drug dealer and a juror meeting face-to-face in your historic courthouse hallway.

What are the Options?

When separate access cannot be established through an improved architectural layout, it will be necessary for court security personnel to manually control circulation. The specific security measures required to accomplish this are most effectively developed on a case-by-case basis through a coordinated effort between courthouse planners and court security staff. As a general rule, the optimal solutions will be a combination of the use of court security staff, security hardware, and improved security technologies.

Let’s consider some of the specific options.

Court Security Personnel Procedures

Prisoner Movement. The absence of a dedicated secure circulation route for the movement of prisoners between the central cellblock and the courtroom or courtroom holding cell is the most common deficiency that I see in the older courthouses that I have assessed. In these situations, the only viable solution is for court security personnel to escort prisoners through public hallways. To safely use this alternative, management of prisoner movement must be augmented with the use of additional security personnel to control public access along the shared circulation paths so there is no possibility of interaction between prisoners and the public.

Juror Circulation. It is not uncommon in older courthouses where restricted circulation is not available for the movement of jurors between jury suites and courtrooms, to instead have jurors use public hallways. To assure security for the jurors, court security personnel must accompany their movement. Again, to avoid undesirable interaction with prisoners, this responsibility must also include coordination with prisoner movement by other members of the courthouse security organization.

Security Hardware

CCTV and Duress Alarms. Judges are often required to use public corridors, stairways, or elevators between chambers and courtrooms or between chambers and other areas of the courthouse, such as libraries or parking. In these instances, CCTV cameras linked to monitors in the courthouse security center should be installed along the entire circulation path to monitor the judges’ movement. The most complete application of CCTV cameras that I have seen was in a historic courthouse. In this instance, extra precautions were taken by installing duress alarms at select locations also linked to the courthouse security center.

court security personnel - Fentress Inc.

CCTV in Public Corridor Used by Judges

Door Lockouts. I have visited several older courthouses where restricted judges’ corridors and elevators are used for the movement of prisoners between the central cellblock and the courtroom or courtroom holding cell to avoid public hallways. In these instances, a formalized process has been established to notify judges and judicial staff prior to prisoner movement. Most importantly, a door lockout system managed by the courthouse security staff has been used where all doors bordering the restricted corridor, including elevator doors, are locked when prisoner movement occurs. This fail-safe lockout approach is required to prevent ill-timed or wholly unintentional entry by judges or judicial staff during prisoner movement.

Security Technologies

Wireless CCTV Cameras. I recently toured a security control center in a Missouri courthouse that had been able to significantly expand coverage of the courthouse due to the new generation of wireless CCTV cameras. This new generation of cameras permits the efficient installation of additional cameras for enhanced coverage without the need for wall or ceiling modifications to accommodate installing new cable back to the security monitoring center. This is a particularly advantageous solution for historic courthouses where architectural limitations have sometimes constrained the number or location of needed cameras.

Court Security Personnel Monitor Center - Fentress Inc.

Expanded Courthouse Security Monitoring Center

Central Electronic Door Controls. I have found an increased use of centrally controlled, electronic door lockout systems for restricted judges’ corridors (as discussed above in “Door Lockouts”). In these systems, each controlled door is locked and unlocked electronically from a central access control panel located in the courthouse security monitoring center. The access control panel is managed by a dedicated access control computer which may be used to manually or automatically control the time of locking and unlocking of selected doors. The same control system is also connected to the elevator doors serving the judges’ restricted corridor to control access on a floor by floor basis.

In the courthouses where I have seen this application used, doors and elevators along the judges’ restricted corridor are locked and unlocked by a court security officer located in the security control center in coordination with judges, judges’ staff, and the court security officers engaged in the movement of prisoners.

I have similarly watched the expanded use of electronic egress door hardware and panic door bars that are designed to improve the balance between egress requirements and security in older courthouses.

Emergency Egress Controls. Because building codes require at least two means of egress from each floor, the layout of older and especially historic courthouses, often requires public emergency egress routes to use judges’ restricted corridors. Through the use of door hardware that is electronically integrated into the fire alarm system, access to emergency egress corridors can be restricted to authorized personnel using key cards during normal building operations. When emergency alarms are activated, the locks automatically disengage, allowing for public use of the judges’/egress corridors.

An alternative system, shown in the following photo, allows a specific door to be unlocked in an emergency after a 30 second delay. Since the use of such doors is simultaneously recorded in the courthouse security control center, an immediate response can be provided by court security personnel in the instance of improper use.

court security personnel sign - Fentress Inc.

Notice in a Judges’ Corridor Used for Egress

Most Effective Applications

The following matrix summarizes which of these alternative security measures would be most effective in managing each potential mixed circulation pattern.

The five columns at the right of the matrix list the multiple security options discussed in this article that may be used as alternatives to architecturally separate diverse circulation patterns. The four rows at the bottom of the matrix list the most problematic situations where incompatible circulation is combined. The boxes noted with an X indicate the security option that would be most effective in addressing the respective incompatible circulation situation.

court security personnel table - Fentress Inc.

Moving Forward

The personnel procedures, equipment, and technology, described above all represent courthouse security measures that have actually and effectively been used as alternative measures for providing secure circulation in existing older courthouses. But they are not the only options that might be used. In fact, security technology and equipment both continue to evolve, and with these more advanced and improved tools, court security personnel can also revise and improve their procedures.

Although a full separation of circulation patterns for judges, court employees, prisoners, and the public is always the preferred solution for any courthouse, security for all its occupants is the goal that must be and can be, although sometimes creatively, achieved.


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Tags: Courthouse Security

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Alan Ruby

Alan Ruby

Alan Ruby joined Fentress in 2002 and is one of the company's senior architects. He combines an extensive knowledge of architecture and the built environment with analytical skills. Alan is an avid scuba diver and cyclist, and a long-time collector of abstract art.