6 of the most high-profile jail construction projects around the world

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With the global prison population rising to a record 11.5 million people, governments around the world are under pressure to build more jail spaces to house them. Lucy Barnard looks at six of the most high profile penitentiaries around the world and finds out who is building them.

A quiet prison construction boom is taking place around the world as the number of people incarcerated globally soars to record numbers.

According to Penal Reform International (PRI), the number of people detained in jails around the world rose to 11.5 million in 2023 with around 120 countries recording occupancy rates exceeding prison system capacity.

Although there is a lack of transparency regarding prison policy in many countries, PRI reports that at least 24 countries are currently working on plans to build new detention facilities or expand existing ones.

A quiet prison construction boom is taking place around the world. Photo: Adobe Stock

The non-governmental organisation (NGO) said that prison overcrowding is usually cited as the primary driver for investment in new prisons. However, it said that in many cases the new capacity suggests governments expect an increase in the prison population.

It also said although the reasons behind construction vary wildly between countries, a drive to keep costs down per prisoner is encouraging politicians in a number of countries to build bigger and bigger ‘mega prisons.’

One of the countries leading this trend is the USA which has the highest prison population of any western country. Here, a building boom is being driven both by larger cities such as New York and Los Angeles closing and replacing overcrowded and outdated facilities. At the same time politicians, especially tough-on-crime Republicans in smaller cities and towns, are also seeking to break ground on new and larger prisons with new projects planned or underway in Indiana, Nebraska and Georgia.

In Europe, pressure to replace outdated and overcrowded facilities is combining with a political shift to the right in a number of countries, encouraging politicians to demand harsher sentences for crimes which is again driving up demand for prison places. In Sweden, long seen as one of the world’s most liberal prison systems and with one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world, the new right-leaning government has been bringing back previously closed prisons into use. In the UK, where the prison population has risen to its highest-ever level at around 89,000, the government is encouraging contractors to collaborate in order to take on a prison building programme which would be too big and require too tight a schedule for any one construction firm to take on alone.

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Elsewhere in the world PRI is also reporting a rush of new prison construction with countries including China, Russia, Turkey, Sri Lanka and Egypt all thought to be increasing capacity.

In the Central American republic of El Salvador, the government, led by President Nayib Bukele has been cracking down on the criminal gangs which once controlled swathes of territory throughout the country. Bukele declared a state of emergency in 2022 allowing the police to swiftly arrest and jail suspected gang members. A central part of this policy has been the completion last year of a 40,000-capacity mega jail designed to hold gang members. Other countries in Central America, including Panama, are now looking at following suit.

Here Construction Briefing looks at six of the most high-profile new prisons being built around the world and the construction teams building them:

Manhattan Detention “Jailscraper” Complex, New York City, USA

New York City plans to build a new prison on White Street in Chinatown as one of four prisons replacing its infamous Rikers Island jail which is scheduled to close in 2027. Image: Mock up created by Neighbors United Below Canal (NUBC) protest group

New York City is in the process of shutting down its notorious Rikers Island jail and replacing it with four smaller prisons spread across the city. In June 2019, the city’s department of Design and Construction awarded a US$107 million contract to a joint venture of Aecom and Hill International to manage the construction of four new facilities in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Last year, Tutor Perini was awarded a US$2.95 billion design-build contract to construct a new prison in Brooklyn. However, it is the Manhattan facility, located on the site of a recently-closed 15-storey detention centre on White Street in Chinatown, colloquially known as “the Tombs” which has created the most controversy. Demolition contractor Gramercy has started work preparing the site for construction. The proposed facility is expected to have capacity for 1,040 beds. It is located in an area where zoning codes allow construction up to 300 feet. If the new tower is built to this height it would make it the tallest prison building in the world.

Elmore County Men’s Penitentiary, Elmore, Alabama, USA

The Alabama Department of Corrections is in the process of building one of the most expensive prisons in US history in Elmore County after the state put a “final guaranteed maximum price” on the proposed new jail at US$1.1 billion in September 2023. The 4,000-bed new facility was first proposed in 2021 alongside plans for a second 4,000 bed jail in Escambia County, as part of a US$1.3 billion state prison and restoration package which controversially included US$400 million in federal funds from pandemic relief budgets. In 2022 state officials signed a US$623 million construction contract with Alabama-based Caddel Construction to build the new facility. However, a year later, the state admitted that construction costs for the facility had risen to US$1.1 billion.

HMP Millsike, York, UK
Digital render of the all-electric HMP Millsike prison Digital render of the all-electric HMP Millsike prison (Image courtesy of Kier)

Due to open in 2025, HMP Millsike is the first prison being delivered by an alliance of four major UK contractors; ISG, Kier, Laing O’Rourke and Wates through their Alliance 4 New Prisons (A4NP). In 2021, the group was appointed by the UK ministry of Justice to build four prisons across the country, creating over 6,000 prison places. The initiative is one of the first major construction projects in the UK to be built through an alliance contract (FAC-1) where a group of construction firms agree to act in good faith and to collaborate to achieve a common goal. Each contractor will take the lead on building a prison but the four will work together on pricing, operations, planning and materials procurement. Kier, which is taking the lead on the Millsike construction, says it is using digital platform Ynomia to generate a 3D digital twin of the project which will be the first prison in the country to run solely on electricity and which will include solar panels and heat pumps in its design.

Viskan Prison, Ånge, Sweden

In Sweden the right-leaning government has begun the most sweeping review of the criminal code since the 1980s with plans to create tougher sentences and potentially treble the number of prison places. For a country which, for the last 50 years, has had one of the world’s most liberal prison systems and one of the lowest incarceration rates in Europe, the sudden increase in demand has led to a rush to find suitable accommodation. In 2021 Swedish construction and civil engineering firm Peab secured a SEK157 million (US$18.06 million) from Swedish social infrastructure investor Intea and the Swedish Prison Service to rebuild and renovate the former Härnösand Prison which was originally built in 1861 and closed in 2009 before reopening the building in 2022. Currently, construction management company is renovating and rebuilding Viskan Prison in the Swedish town of Ånge, which also closed in 2009, as a security class 2 modern prison with room for 120 new inmates. Serneke said it won the contract worth SEK590 million (US$54 million) in 2023 and construction was due to be completed in early 2025.

Csenger smart prison, Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg, Hungary

Due to be inaugurated in September 2024, Hungarian contractor West Hungária Bau is building a high security prison in the eastern town of Csenger. According to the Hungarian Prison Service (BVOP), the new facility, which will be able to accommodate 1,500 people, will be built as a smart prison. Doors to the facility will operate with facial recognition while each cell will be equipped with an information tool allowing inmates to manage their affairs through a closed online channel providing up-to-date information about data, finances, application processing and work assignments. The facility will also use AI to analyse inmates’ behaviour, alerting supervisors if it detects unexpected behaviour.

Terrorism Confinement Centre (CECOT), Tecoluca, El Salvador
Wardens in anti-riot gear take part in a practice, during a tour in the “Terrorism Confinement Center” (CECOT) complex, in Tecoluca, El Salvador, shortly after its opening in 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Completed in January 2023, El Salvador’s 50,000 sq m Terrorism Confinement (Cecot) prison complex is located 45 miles southeast of the country’s capital San Salvador. The eight-block high security prison, which claims to be the largest penitentiary in the world, was built in just seven months and forms a central plank of President Nayib Bukele’s war on the gangs which plague the country. The prison has a capacity for 40,000 inmates and has been criticized by human rights groups for its repressive security policies. Information about the contracting process to build the mega prison has not been published by the government but official documents published on the ministry of Finance website suggest that Mexican contractor Contratista General de América Latina was awarded a US$23.9 million contract for its part in the construction. Salvadorian construction firms OMNI and DISA have also been contracted on the project.

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