A Sign of the Times
By Hava Leisner (12/09/2005)

Allen Sailer, PE, joined the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in 1996 as director of the facilities division, the position he currently holds. Sailer is responsible for new facility planning, design, and construction, as well as the operation and maintenance functions at 109 prisons and state jail facilities. He manages the adult correctional facilities-scattered across Texas-from the central headquarters in Huntsville.

In this interview, Sailer tells how the state is preparing to tackle 175 maintenance and repair projects at the 109 facilities. The repairs and upgrades are necessary to bring older facilities up to modern day code, and will address such issues as ADA accommodations and indoor air quality.

Condition surveys identified a need for a half billion dollars over the next eight to 10 years to bring just 11 of the state's oldest facilities up to code and perform security enhancements.

Hava Leisner: How large is your staff? What issues do they deal with when managing the upkeep of 109 prisons and state jail facilities?

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Allen Sailer: The total staff that maintains the system is right around 1,500. Somewhere between 1,200 and 1,300 people are located at the facilities themselves. Those people are the day-to-day maintenance folks who take care of the units, and their role is pretty much of a preventative maintenance one; they change the oil, change the fan belts, and respond to emergencies.

The staff we have here at our headquarters in Huntsville numbers around 384 and is comprised of engineers, project managers, architects, and administrative folks who work on policy. From here, we take care of all the major construction and design, and provide the day-to-day policy and direction for the maintenance troops in field.

HL: Has Texas ever considered privatized maintenance?

AS: Not seriously, no. It is something that has been discussed but has been decided against.

HL: Are there certain maintenance-related items that come up often, such as a lack of hot water, faulty toilets, or sewage/plumbing problems?

AS: We have a lot of that. The 26 oldest units average more than 60 years in age and are our main source of problems. There are, of course, roof leaks and equipment failures, such as the chillers and the boilers. About one third of our units furnish their own water and perform the water-waste treatment, so we have daily emergencies regarding equipment failures and that kind of thing.

HL: Can you tell me how that would work-would someone at the site address the situation or is there some type of computerized system through which the work needs to be routed?

AS: Well, if emergencies can be dealt with locally, our people at the facility have the authority to work on it. The wardens all have their own maintenance budgets and they do day-to-day things. In the case of, say, a large chiller failure, the warden would notify us here in Huntsville and we'll get the emergency purchase started, buying a new chiller and installing it for them.

What work is required is determined by the people at the units themselves. We rely on them to identify problems, plus we work to identify problems here in Huntsville, using our condition surveys.

If there is any major construction or large amounts of work to be done, individuals at the units will initiate a major work request and send it to Huntsville. We manage those larger projects from here, coming up with our annual work plan and also handling design and construction and construction management from here.

HL: How are the wardens' budgets determined?

AS: They are pretty much based on the type of unit, prior expenditures, and the size of the unit. The final budgets are determined jointly between my office [facilities] and the budget office here at TDCJ.

We have cost-per-day figures used to determine what it costs us to operate units, so the budgeting is pretty much based on past history of consumables, the cost-per-feeding, and those types of thing. We know what our labor is going to cost us based on the number of people we have, and then we combine that with what we spent the last couple of years on consumables.

HL: What have been some of your more challenging experiences as director of facilities?

AS: Well, initially it was to bring four new high security units online. As I remember it, we had a $160 million new construction program when I first started [in 1996].

We are now in a phase where we aren't building anything new, so the challenge is keeping the old systems running. We have, as I mentioned, our 26 oldest facilities that are over 60 years in age, on average; our oldest one is the Huntsville Unit, which will be 153 years old this year. Of course, those old units are not built to modern day codes and as things fail we need to bring them up to code. We deal with such things as ADA accommodations at our older units and environmental problems.

HL: Such as indoor air quality and mold?

AS: That's two of them. Of course, since we run our own sewer and water plants we have a lot of dealings with our state environmental agency with regards to complying with environmental laws, discharges, and those kinds of things. We have to get permits for that and if there are any violations we need to correct those, quickly. So we do a lot of work with environmental agencies.

HL: Is indoor air quality something that comes up a lot in the humid areas of Texas?

AS: Yes. We have a couple of industrial hygienists on our staff. They spend a lot of time on the road investigating air quality complaints. They don't just investigate mold, they look at our industries and factories where we use glue and those kinds of things. They investigate complaints from both inmates and employees.

HL: Does every unit have some type of factory or manufacturing plant?

AS: No, just mostly our older units. Some of our older units have large agricultural operations. Produce, swine, cattle, and horses are the main commodities.

HL: Does most of the construction work now involve maintaining facilities?

AS: Yes. The slowdown in new construction comes at a good time because we really need to put a lot of work into those older facilities. About 80 percent of our facilities are less than 25 years old. About 20 percent of our facilities are more than 25 years old and, of those, 13 units are more than 75 years old.

Initially, we did a condition survey of 11 of our oldest plants and came up with a list of requirements needed to bring them up to standards. And, just in those first 11, we identified about a half a billion dollars worth of work necessary to bring them up to code and also perform security enhancements.

With that data we were able to get legislative support for a bond issue last year-it wasn't just TDCJ, all state agencies were recipients of a bond issue approved by voters in November 2001. That vote authorized the sale of more than $800 million in bonds to pay for maintenance, repair, and rehabilitation of state-owned facilities. TDCJ expects to get about $300 million of that over the next six years.

HL: And that would go directly to those 11 facilities?

AS: No, it will be for all 109, paying for whatever goes wrong at any one of the facilities.

HL: With 109 facilities, you mentioned that some were private, and some must be for juveniles, and there are varying levels of security-how do you account for management and operations with each facility being unique in that regard?

AS: The youth facilities are under the jurisdiction of a separate agency, the Texas Youth Commission. We handle construction management for their construction projects but we do not handle their maintenance and upkeep.

The 109 facilities do include some state-owned, but privately-operated facilities-just a handful of those.

From a maintenance standpoint they [a juvenile facility and a high-security adult prison] are pretty much transparent. A building is a building. They all have the same kinds of systems required to run them. The big difference would be how "hard" the facility is, what you need to do in the way of security. So, naturally we have a lot more razor ribbon and remote cameras and automated or electronic locking systems at our harder units, so the maintenance, from a technological standpoint, is a little bit more challenging at a high-security unit where you have electronic locking, video cameras, and sensors.

Just recently we installed a non-lethal electric fence- a pulse technology fence. We just put one around the Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, which houses our male death-row facility.

HL: Do you handle maintenance and upkeep at the handful of privately-operated facilities in your state?

AS: No, but let me qualify that. They [private operators] do the day-to-day work, but when there's a breakdown of a major piece of equipment-something like a chiller or a boiler going out or a major re-roofing-we will fund that because we own the facility.

HL: How do items get prioritized?

AS: If they can't handle it at the unit, they send it up here and we'll prioritize it at our headquarters. We have what we call a construction review committee, made up of members from our different divisions who look at and review requests and then prioritize them. That's how we create our bi-annual work plan. Based on that plan, we perform design construction and construction management from our central headquarters here in Huntsville.

HL: What is the condition survey you conducted on the 11 older facilities?

AS: In this case, the survey was outsourced to an architect/engineering firm. Licensed architects and engineers were sent to the facilities and, in conjunction with our own maintenance folks, conducted a site visit that lasted anywhere from three to five days at each unit. The facilities were evaluated from top to bottom, structural failures, weaknesses, and roof leaks were identified, as was old equipment that probably was on its last legs. At the end, we had a complete shopping list for every unit, which gave us a good indication of the shape each unit was in.

HL: As far as purchasing a lifetime of light fixtures or knowing when to rotate or get new pieces of recreation equipment-is there some type of protocol?

AS: We're pretty much in a reaction mode-until we get ahead of this backlog of maintenance and repairs. It's pretty much a "replace it when it fails" kind of mentality right now.

HL: In your five-years at the TDCJ you must have seen a lot of changes stemming from the shift from new construction toward maintenance?

AS: It requires a completely new way of thinking when you go from a big construction program to a big maintenance and repair program. In our case, we had four large projects going at four different sites. Now we have 175 projects at 109 sites, scattered all over the state of Texas. You need a different management system in order to handle that.

HL: What are some of those 175 projects?

AS: The projects run the gamut, everything from environmental compliance to the complete reconstruction of one of our sewer plants. We're also working on ventilation, kitchen renovations, roof leaks, and asbestos clean up, among other things.

We do asbestos cleanup in-house with inmate crews who are certified by the state. We abide with all state certifications and training to make them certified and they go through the annual health checks just like our regular employees do. The work crews are all made up of inmates who are within two years of being released.

HL: Is there a dollar amount available for the projects underway?

AS: They range anywhere from about $10,000 to $12 million, which is the largest one we have going right now. That project is a complete renovation of one of the kitchens and dining facilities in an older unit.

HL: How do you get funds to pay for maintenance?

AS: The day-to-day maintenance is funded by the Texas Legislature on a two-year basis. They meet every other year to appropriate what we call general revenue funds for the operation of the agency. Our day-to-day maintenance, salaries, and consumables spent by each unit come out of that pot of money.

The money from the statewide measure approved by voters in November is for major projects that our units can't handle with their maintenance staff. They are larger projects.

We probably won't be getting any more than that $300 million over the next six years, so it looks like we'll just have to stretch that money as far as we can and keep the old equipment running as best we can until that six-year period is up. We have to live with what we get.

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