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Magazines & Newsletters / ASTM Standardization News


March/April 2008

F33 Sets the Standard for Detention and Correctional Facilities

International Standards Help Ensure Safety

jailThe world turns to the standards of ASTM International Committee F33 on Detention and Correctional Facilities to strengthen prison security.

In a Middle Eastern desert, where temperatures soar, sand swirls and camels are commonplace, a national police force demanded one thing when building a 3,000-bed prison: ASTM International standards had to be followed.

Architect Mike Retford, AIA, recording secretary for ASTM International Committee F33 on Detention and Correctional Facilities, was a consultant for that project for the Sultanate of Oman three years ago, a project for which the Royal Omani Police Force required a U.S. justice consultant.

“As we went through the design, the police force was extremely interested in U.S. design standards and U.S. materials standards to the point of ASTM F33 standards becoming the minimum requirement for determining detention equipment and electronics security to be used,” says Retford, western region justice practice lead with Los Angeles-based architectural firm DMJM H&N.

A 10-year member of Committee F33, Retford says that requirement by Oman — located on the Persian Gulf and bordering Saudi Arabia — made him feel “very validated.” He notes, “They recognized these standards are essentially the only ones in the world.”

Indeed, Committee F33 is the only committee in the world developing such standards, and those standards cover a broad rage of topics pertaining to detention and correctional facilities.

At the Start

Committee F33, formed in 1989, came from A01 on Steel, Stainless Steel and Related Alloys, where it was a task group under Subcommittee A01.02 on Structural Steel for Bridges, Buildings, Rolling Stock and Ships. Later, the group became Subcommittee A01.16 on Steel and Assemblies for Detention Purposes.

Before 1989, Retford says, Walker McGough Foltz and Lyerla Architects in Spokane, Wash., provided some guidelines for detention facilities. “Prior to that, you were relying on the judgment and experience of your design team.”

“There was a lot of crime out there,” adds former Committee F33 chair and current vice chair Vijay Ruikar, P.E., senior staff engineer, engineering services of Intertek. “The administrators of the detention/correctional facilities were forced to spend a lot of taxpayer dollars completely in the dark since they had no test reports and certification on products. This happened because there were no nationally or internationally recognized test standards for products and systems that were used in detention/correctional facilities,” Ruikar says.

Ensuring Safety

A small percentage of the world is imprisoned, and according to the U.S. Department of Justice, at the end of 2006 about 3.2 percent of adult Americans were in prison or jail or on probation or parole. That small percentage still adds up to more than 9 million people incarcerated worldwide, according to the National Institute of Corrections. While those criminals — and their victims, judges and juries — are at the forefront of people’s minds when crimes make headlines, Committee F33’s work is critical behind the scenes to ensure safety.

“The test methods developed in Committee F33 test the hardware, such as the steel bars, doors, glazing and locking equipment, that must perform properly and reliably to protect the corrections officers, other inmates and the public from escape by inmates,” says Joseph Hugo, ASTM F33 staff manager.

Thanks to Committee F33 standards, that security is assured, whether the facility is in a modern country and features the latest in electronics, or in a developing country where officials may prefer to use mechanically operated hardware.

Committee F33 membership secretary Paul Whitaker, AIA, lead for security architecture at Atlanta-based Rosser International, Inc. has used the standards on detention projects throughout the U.S. and also from Puerto Rico to Ontario, Canada, where Rosser developed prototype designs used for multiple facilities across the province.

Committee F33 standards, Whitaker says, are key in establishing essential security requirements so products can be tested “to determine if Brand B is equal to Brand A.”

“We definitely had projects throughout the years where we have relied on the standards and testing to the standards to reveal products that did not provide the security necessary,” Whitaker says.

Jon Gomberg, chief, Technical Support Section, Design and Construction Branch, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Washington, D.C., and a six-year F33 member, says the committee’s work is of great value to the bureau.

“Where F33 benefits the Bureau of Prisons is virtually all the manufacturers out there say they have products that are high security. Without standards, you really can’t say they are or they aren’t,” Gomberg says. “When we identify problems and issues, F33 is very good and tries to establish standards that would be a benchmark for the industry. That way, if a product meets an ASTM standard, you have a level of confidence in how it performs.”

Broad Membership and Comprehensive Standards

Formed to assist those responsible for all facets of correctional facilities — including design, security and efficiency — the committee includes members who are architects, engineers, manufacturers, representatives of state and federal agencies and correctional facilities, and product testers, among others.

Today, Committee F33, currently chaired by Martha Lee of Magal-Senstar in Fremont, Calif., has about 140 members who have jurisdiction over 14 active standards — plus seven proposed new standards — that cover materials, products, assemblies and systems used in the construction, renovation and operation of all levels of adult and juvenile detention facilities and lockups. The full committee meets three times a year in conjunction with the American Jail Association and American Correctional Association conferences, and task groups meet on an interim basis.

Committee F33 comprises nine subcommittees that cover the obvious and obscure, major items and minutiae, from F33.02 on Physical Barriers such as windows, walls and fencing, to F33.04 on Detention Hardware such as locks, alarms and closed circuit television. F33.05 on Furnishings and Equipment focuses on such items as beds, mattresses and padding, while F33.06 on Control Systems works with intercoms, locking controls, perimeter detection systems and more.

The standards are diverse, including documents that cover such areas as:

  • F 2322, Test Methods for Physical Assault on Vertical Fixed Barriers for Detention and Correctional Facilities, which addresses simulated service tests and testing equipment for determining the performance characteristics of walls;
  • F 1915, Test Methods for Glazing for Detention Facilities, which focuses on window and door glazing; and
  • F 1870, Guide for Selection of Fire Test Methods for the Assessment of Upholstered Furnishings in Detention and Correctional Facilities, which focuses on test methods for furniture in a cell.

One of Committee F33’s latest projects is WK14507, Selection of Security Fasteners for Detention and Correctional Facilities, which demonstrates just how detailed the committee’s work can be. The goal of the proposed standard is to promote consistency in the use of security fasteners for door and window assemblies throughout detention/correctional facilities, providing technical information related to understanding the features, types, materials and benefits of various security fasteners, according to the draft.

“As the only materials standards that relate to products for detention and security construction applications, Committee F33’s work is very important,” says August Sisco, executive vice president of the National Association of Architectural Metal Manufacturers, which is forming a new division — the Detention Equipment Manufacturers’ Association — that will incorporate Committee F33 standards in its own. “We’re always referencing and including ASTM standards because they’re so critical to our product specifications."

Avoiding Catastrophe

Regardless of subject, the standards benefit the justice community; the community at large; and designers, architects, builders, parts manufacturers and other vendors in many ways.

Jim Stapleton, Jr., P.E., president and CEO of Habersham Metal Products Co., Cornelia, Ga., and past chair of Committee F33, says there are considerations to be made for detention facilities that differ from those for commercial buildings such as hotels or offices, particularly in the areas of fires and accidents. The nature of buildings and the populations they house call for unique testing and standards: How much battering can a window withstand? Is the furniture suicide proof? Can the plumbing hold up against abuse? How can manufacturers make beds as safe as possible from fire?

“It’s not a matter of if there’s going to be some kind of disturbance — it’s a matter of when it’s going to happen and how bad it’s going to be,” Stapleton says. “There’s more exposure, there’s more risk than in commercial facilities. Prisons and jails are dangerous places at best.”

Because of that, the standards are critical.

“The facilities have to be well maintained, well operated, and the materials and products that F33 addresses — it’s extremely important they perform in the ways designated,” says Stapleton, current chair of Subcommittee F33.02.

If not, the outcome can be catastrophic. “We’re dealing with the safety and welfare of all those people. There’s a lot at stake compared to normal commercial facilities or residences, for that matter,” Stapleton says. “Following those standards is extremely important for the safety of staff, the public and inmates.”

Leveling the Playing Field

In addition to a safety perspective, the test standards are important from financial and legal perspectives to owners of the facilities, the professionals who design and construct them, and the manufacturers of their components.

Ruikar recalled a project in the late 1990s for California’s Vacaville Prison and related hospital, which had been constructed in 1952 in a then-relatively rural area. Four decades later, the region had expanded, residences and schools edged the prison, and California State fire marshals worried about fire safety and overall security issues.

Since there were no fire-rated door assemblies, fire alarm systems or fire-fighting drills, and since detainees would not be able to evacuate on their own in the event of a fire, officials decided to install new safety systems. Replacing the 40-plus-year-old existing door assemblies, securely embedded in thick concrete walls, posed security risks and would be expensive, a predicted $20 million. Employing ASTM standards, including F 1450, Test Methods for Hollow Metal Swinging Door Assemblies for Detention Facilities, to lab-test worst-case door assemblies, Ruikar not only proved that the facilities were in better shape than expected but also that the work that did need to be done would cost just $40,000.

“That is where technology comes to the rescue,” Ruikar says. “That is where ASTM standards do a magnificent job.”

Ruikar says the standards also allow small and large manufacturers of all types of tested and certified materials to offer products of a comparable quality and thereby enable purchasers of those materials to focus on other variables, such as delivery dates and cost. A small manufacturer can objectively prove through tests to ASTM standards done by an independent, third-party, accredited testing company how its products compare to those of industry giants.

Adds Retford, “The standards provide a leveling of the playing field among suppliers and contractors, and they provide legal protection for owners and architects.”

Around the Globe

When an organization is the only one creating standards in such a critical field, there are many factors to consider, including the differences from country to country. Committee F33 standards are particularly important because they serve owners and manufacturers with many different needs and capabilities, often in far-flung places, notes Stapleton. Citing open-air facilities in South America that he worked on, Stapleton says, “It’s always paramount that the design and products are appropriate for open-air conditions. The security of the facilty has to be just as good as a heated and air-conditioned building.”

Committee F33 standards help assure that and much more. Ultimately, those standards guarantee that all involved with detention and correctional facilities construct the best possible structures, protecting those both within and outside their walls.

As Retford notes, “We’re setting a standard that is being recognized internationally.”


Patricia Quigley is an award-winning journalist and public relations practitioner who has written for local, regional, national and international publications. She resides in southern New Jersey, where she earned a B.A. in communication and M.A. in writing from Rowan University.