Working on The Rock
By Roibín Ó hÉochaidh and Matthew Crawford (12/07/2009)

The "Rock"

SAN FRANCISCO — After almost 30 years, visitors to the former federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island can once again experience the unmistakable sounds and jolting sensations of the slammer, following the completion of a renovation of cell lines spearheaded by Southern Folger.

In bygone days, when Alcatraz served as the country’s most dreaded prison, shouts of, “Rack ‘em” signaled the commencement of evening lockdown as correctional officers initiated the mechanical cell-line system with hand-operated levers. The nightly ritual brought lines of cell doors slamming shut en masse with a stomach-churning metallic clang that reverberated through concrete walls and human bones alike.

Since then, however, cell lines on the main housing block fell into a state of severe disrepair and intermittent malfunction as 70 years of exposure to the corrosive action of salt-laden air and dirt hastened the degradation of ageing mechanical components.

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By 1980, line mechanisms had deteriorated to the point that their operation had become so unpredictable that red-faced staff frequently found themselves scrambling to extricate incredulous, and sometimes panic-stricken, visitors imprisoned in cells that could not be unlocked.

Faced by the impracticality, cost and, perhaps, the sheer embarrassment of increasingly frequent S.O.S. calls for a locksmith to be ferried to the island, authorities halted the lock-up portion of the Alcatraz experience until comprehensive repairs could be made.

Island Preserve

• The National Park Service has managed the island and its famous former prison as a unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area since 1972.

• GOGA is part of the Central California Coast International Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-designated habitat of international significance.

Southern Folger

www.southernfolger.com

Learning of the cell-line problems during a 2005 service call, Southern Folger President Don Halloran volunteered the company’s services to the National Park Service in 2006 for the ongoing Alcatraz Island Historic Structure Preservation-Construction Program.

In partnership with the National Park Service, Southern Folger kick-started the cell-line restoration project with an extensive cleaning of the cell doors.

“We had to go in and evaluate all of the cell doors to evaluate the condition and what they needed to bring them up to operating condition,” Halloran says. “Over the years, they had greased it up, and with that grease, was rust and dirt. We had to strip everything off to get it down to bare metal. It was a huge challenge.”

Following the cleaning, Southern Folger cataloged the original components that formed the cell-line. With a mechanism long since consigned to history, the hardware was no longer in production and the Southern Folger team found itself in need of custom parts that had to be fabricated from raw stock.

With no manufacturer drawings or schematics of the cell-line mechanism, the team was forced to reverse engineer the hardware from the original components. The team enlisted the help of several local hardware and metal fabricators to reproduce replacement parts that would be identical to the original hardware.

“A great part of this project was engineering,” Halloran says. “We had to really redesign some of the missing components.”

More accustomed to retrofit projects in more modern surroundings, the Southern Folger team then set about installing the replacement hardware that would restore the main housing block’s cell-line mechanism to its original ready-to-use condition.

“A lot of this equipment was very custom, and I don’t think the tolerances were too tight back then,” Halloran says. “Once we got in there to install it, it would work on one and not the other.”

Southern Folger covered the entire cost of refurbishing the cell-line mechanisms in the main housing block — the contribution is valued at approximately $200,000 — not an insignificant donation to the Alcatraz restoration project. But then, what better company to tackle this unique retrofit of the Rock than one of the oldest detention equipment companies in the United States?

Company Name:Southern Folger Detention Equipment Company

Incorporated: 2004

Headquarters: San Antonio, Texas

President/CEO: Donald G. Halloran

Number of Employees: 248

Annual Revenue 2004-08:$60 million

Standard Industrial Classification Code:3429

Background:Southern Folger Detention Equipment Co. was formed in August 2004 when Southern Steel Company, a detention equipment manufacturer founded in 1897, acquired Illinois-based Folger Adam Security Inc., detention equipment manufacturer founded in 1905.

Products/Services:Southern Folger’s operating divisions provide detention equipment and security products, locks and locking devices, and corrections-specific services, including security electronics integration, construction management, equipment retrofit, upgrade, service and repair, preventive maintenance, and customized training programs. 

Portfolio:

• Cleveland County Justice Center, Norman, Okla.: $3.5 million detention equipment and security electronics package 

• Livingston County Jail, Geneseo, N.Y.: $4 million detention and security electronics package

• Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility, Banning, Calif.: $9.3 million detention equipment package

• Wyandotte County Jail, Kansas City, Kan.: $2.5 million security electronic systems upgrade

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