I’ve been thinking a lot about concrete this past week, partly due to the apocalyptic images of devastated Haiti. Concrete was relied on so heavily there due to the island’s constant battering of hurricanes; yes it’s strong, but when a concrete walls tumble, they’re lethal to the unfortunate souls inside. And difficult to move and shift unless you have heavy equipment, which the Haitians lacked until rescue crews started arriving days after the quake.
Last spring I considered concrete more intently while writing about FCI-Berlin, the federal prison being built in New Hampshire’s North Country. A prison is, for the most part, composed of hundreds of cells, and those cells are precast in concrete, thousands of cubic yards of the stuff. “Remember Legos? Those fun, multi-colored little bricks you built castles with? Now imagine stacking hundreds of 30-ton Lego bricks with a hydraulic crane. This is what precast construction for schools, dormitories, and most recently, correctional facilities is all about.” So writes Ann Coppola in a 2007 issue of Corrections Today.
As a prison rises, its cells arrive completely assembled, kitted out with a metal bed, toilet and sink, fluorescent lights, a non-glass mirror, and a sprinkler system. Each 6×8 space in Berlin has one oblong window cut vertically by a steel bar, a sometimes-maligned design that has been called ‘slit-window gun-tower’ style. These cells are painted pale yellow on the inside, the floors left a stony gray.
Precast concrete cells are built by only a handful of companies in the US, and Oldcastle Precast among the largest. Like many vendors to the prison industry, Pennsylvania-based Oldcastle is reticent when it comes to talking publicly about their business: manufacturing behemoth, Lego-type cells intended for “rapid assembly.” Thousands of them. Right now, they are promoting a new product, a “Precast Cell with Balcony” that can be used in civilian and military prisons.
The use of precast concrete for cells was something of an innovation in the mid-1980s. Until that time, cells were built by masons, a lengthier and more expensive process. Just as harsher sentencing laws were causing an explosion of prisons, precast concrete made it cheaper and easier to put them up. “The most visible challenge facing modern prison construction is to make more room for incoming inmates – and fast,” begins one article in a concrete industry rag. Oldcastle became a main supplier to the prison industry, and is the primary vendor for FCI-Berlin. The cells were fabricated by mixing cement, water and maybe some fly ash and sand, then poured it into a mold so that it pools around a skeleton of wire rebar. It is then ‘cured’, or hardened, over the next few days.
It’s about 230 miles from Rehoboth, Massachusetts to Berlin, New Hampshire, a distance that probably seems much longer when you’re hauling a 7,200 pound block of concrete on your flatbed. Last fall, trucks sagging with cell blocks started rumbling their way up from Rehoboth, up route 16 and into Berlin, over the bridge connecting the main and eastern parts of the city, and then finally onto the prison site. They were so heavy that they are barely cleared the ground as they traveled down the road, and because the cells protruded two feet on either side of the bed, each was accompanied by a police escort with twirling lights. “We’d see them starting at about 8:30 in the morning. And when you saw them, they’re so big, you needed to get out of the way,” said a woman who lived nearby. One clipped the antennas of several cars parked along the side of the road. Another fell off the back of the truck and had to be hauled back on. A state trooper escorting a few cells through Jefferson hit a father and son cycling along the shoulder of Route 115, sending both to the hospital.
After touring FCI Berlin one day, I had a beer at Fagins Pub, where many of the guys working on the prison would relax after work. There, I met many ‘creeters’, or those who pour concrete floors and foundations. One inparticular had been working on the prison site for about a year. When I asked him how many yards of concrete he reckons will go into the structure. “Oh! I dunno. It must be millions.” (it’s actually about 250,000 yards). He was unwinding after a day spent pouring the last of the foundation for the main building. When that was done, his crew was to start shaping and flattening floors. “I hate floors. I hate having to stoop over that much.” He was six-foot-four, and using lasers to level the floors is painstaking work.
There were 40 or 50 creeters on the site, most of them from the North Country. The concrete for the floors came from Coleman Concrete down the road in Gorham. “You need to get concrete somewhere within an hour’s drive of where it’s made else it will harden before it gets to where it needs to go.” He takes out his wallet and shows me his card from ACI, the American Concrete Institute. “You want to know something else?”
“When does concrete reach its maximum strength?” Pride washes over his face, and he pauses for effect. “100 years!” He’s right, of course: concrete reaches about 90 percent of its strength three weeks after curing, and continues to strengthen over the ensuing decades. “It takes a hundred years for all of the moisture to evaporate out of poured concrete,” he adds. After that, concrete enters a slow decline.
Fagins Pub burned down a few weeks after that, one of seemingly dozens of buildings that have burned to the ground here in the past three years. Up on the hill, the concrete floors were in place, and so were the cells. Last I drove by what used to be Fagins, some young men were shifting around the ruins. It was one of the only places to grab a drink in Berlin. I’m not sure where the creeters have moved on to.