STE Innovation Award Gold Medalist: The Hardened Hospital

How historic St. Elizabeth’s transformed six-plus years of work and seven zones of technology into the backbone of an innovative security system


Founded by Congress in 1852 to treat people living with mental illness, Saint Elizabeth’s notably served as a hospital for wounded Union and Confederate alike, renowned writers, the biggest contributor to the Oxford dictionary, and three presidential assassins — with thankfully, only one having succeeded.

In April 2010, the Hospital moved into a new 450,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility that incorporates best practices in patient mental health care with an environmentally sensitive design and sustainable strategies. The new building’s therapeutic design includes bright and airy living and treatment areas, green spaces off each patient unit, and enclosed courtyards. A 28,000 square-foot green roof is likely the largest on any psychiatric facility in the country.

With a combination of community outpatients, both civil voluntary and involuntary commitments, and a large population of forensic patients — those adjudicated as “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity” — the hospital needed a unique security plan that integrated patient safety, staff security and community access while keeping mindful of the urban, southeast Washington setting.

Because of the nature of the crimes or special needs of highly sensitive patients, the security and safety systems, physical barriers and operations were critical and inseparable to the integration philosophy of the design, construction, engineering, commissioning, training, daily operations, and emergency event planning and strategy.

Balancing the needs of patient and staff safety alike, while ensuring a maximum level of physical security, became the focus of the new Chief Administrator of the hospital, Dr. Patrick Canavan, while forensic patient responsibility was headed by Dr. Joseph Henneberry, and Facility Management responsibility was offered by Mr. Gilbert Taylor. Henneberry and Taylor worked with Professional Systems Engineering LLC (PSE), a systems strategy and design firm, at Patuxent Institution, a large behavioral management facility in Maryland.

PSE was hired by the architect to design all physical security such as hard and soft fencing, protected openings, K-rated barriers and lighting, as well as all security electronics, perimeter detection, wireless duress and access control. With more than 25 years of experience in psychiatric, forensic and maximum-security facility operations and technologies, PSE produced a security program integrating the security and public safety functions.

I charged the design team with establishing facilities which met U.S. District Court requirements and facility accreditation. New plans were developed by Mark Shaw, AIA, and Eric Kern, AIA, of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architects on behalf of the District of Columbia, Department of Mental Health.

Requiring a close collaborative effort, the Project Executive for the Construction Manager — Gilbane Company’s Robert Poe with Project Manager William Millios — selected PSE to work directly with the hospital on transition requirements including fire code responsibility, master keying, mass evacuation and defend-in-place fire safety planning. PSE was also responsible for preparing fire and security evacuation maps, staff security and fire training. Jason Delp, Director of Projects and a partner with PSE, managed the integration of physical and electronic security while Thomas H. Pilson, IV, Director of Corrections and Public Safety, managed keying, life safety and security training. Frank Carpency, PE, CCP, Vice President with PSE during design, was responsible for security engineering from 2004 to 2005.

Seven Zones of Technology

The security program defined the security and public safety functions of the site into seven zones of security — protected from both internal and external breach.

Zone 1 is the housing unit into which the highest level, maximum security forensic patients are assigned. Generally speaking, an individual remains at this housing unit floor location except for therapeutic and recreational activities in a secure courtyard and visits for extended health care.

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