The Sears Metaphor

When Sears, Roebuck and Company began seeing rapid declines in their revenues in the early 1990’s it discovered it had a perception issue. A trusted retailer since 1886, the company was at the receiving end of a backlash from its investors after a staggering $3.9 billion dollar loss in 1992. After divesting its financial services business and restructuring its retail operations, Sears had to find a way to reach its eroded customer base.

Enter Arthur Martinez, former chairman of Saks Fifth Avenue. Martinez shut-down over 100 unprofitable stores, reduced the workforce by 50,000 people, invested $4 billion to renovate stores, and initiated the wildly successful marketing campaign, “Come see the softer side of Sears.”

Sound familiar?

The Sears of the 1990s is a metaphor for the detention market in the last several years. The slashed national corrections budget resulted in lost revenues and personnel reductions for DEC’s, which resulted in changes to the way DECs market, sell, and complete on-site work. The DEC industry segment went through the same process as Sears: experience losses, reduce personnel, restructure.

All the while, the “softer side” of corrections has emerged from its infancy and has comfortably found its cleft in the industry. The softer side of things, like green initiatives and more humane living and working spaces for inmates and staff, are becoming thought norms. Embracing these thought patterns will be the DEC’s ticket to relevance in a changing industry.


The green movement is about a lot of things, and is often misunderstood. Certainly there is an ethical argument to be made for the use of green practices. But since we don’t all share the same ethical standards, the rational argument to make for green practices to the business community is efficiency: doing more, with less, for longer. Noted thinker and environmental attorney, Gus Speth, posed an economic definition of sustainability as, “living off of nature’s income rather than consuming its capital.”

From the DEC perspective, we’ve left the majority of the greening to owners and architects who set goals and design for green buildings. We have not contributed notable innovation to the products and processes involved in our scope, though the opportunities are ripe.

The 3% Solution, a report very recently released by CDP and the World Wildlife Fund, asserts there is $190 billion of financial savings is available to the US corporate sector if they reduce carbon emissions by 3% by 2020 utilizing the following three initiatives:

  1. “Improved energy efficiency through behavioral or management changes”
  2. “Energy efficiency through technology improvements”
  3. “The deployment of low-carbon energy…”

For DECs this may take the shape of auditing and controlling shipping routes, supply chains, production, materials use, office energy consumption, and countless other contributing factors. The savings earned by implementing any option can pass along to the customer or be devoted to outstanding R&D projects that keep DECs competitive. As projects trend toward LEED certifications and higher sustainability standards, a DEC establishes their competitive ground by marketing these changes in the traditional, widespread manner, and in project-specific materials. As mentioned in this publication and through the efforts of DECA (the Detention Equipment Contractors Association) the betterment of all DECs is to the greater benefit of our industry. As participants in the larger economy, the betterment of our environmental practices is to the greater benefit of our planet.

The full report, substantially more detailed than related here, is available online at

Design for Healthy Humans

Harsh correctional environments have been controversial for decades and have ultimately been deemed inefficient for bettering human behavior. To say that architects have improved the lives and work environments of inmates and officers would be a massive understatement. Breakthroughs in design are arguably the underlying factors that allow inmate programs to be successful. An education program isn’t effective unless the classroom is designed for learning. A social skills program is only as good as the cell-block environment is for practicing the learned skills.

In the same way, a breakthrough design is only as good as the products that go in it. As the gateway to a supply chain, DEC products have contributed relatively little to accommodate changes in building design. In fact, DECs have historically been content to have the larger design fit the parameters of the detention product. This lag occurs despite the position and ability to communicate directly with owners and architects to discover and correct inefficiencies. These conversations often eliminate the guesswork, speeding the research and development phase and placing the DEC at the forefront of modernization. Easy as it is to remain in the cyclical, “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality, changes yield competitive advantages to a DEC’s or supplier’s specific product or service.

Designing on Ethics

Radical change is burgeoning through the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) and the American Institute of Architects San Francisco chapter (AIASF). The AIASF recently endorsed the ADPSR’s proposal that “prohibit[s] the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment,” which ultimately disallows the design of SHU or death row areas. The international precedent on torture and killing find SHUs and executions to be human rights violations.

Extensive research has exposed the degradation and recidivism effects on inmates who spend over 15 days in SHUs and then return to society to be our neighbors. This is another opportunity for DECs to include themselves in the conversation and submit their breakthrough designs that breathe new life into the way we build the structures around our inmates. The responsibility both to functional and ethical design belongs to each person in the corrections chain, owner through supplier.

Back to Sears

After capital investments to its stores and restructuring its operations, Sears had transformed into a machine. The Sears of the 1990’s was a transformation story. The Sears of today is perhaps a story of disarray, and for our industry, a cautionary tale.

Sears made some critical decisions that have resulted in six years of lost revenues; namely, cutting investments in their stores, hiring leadership without retail experience, and out pricing their largest customer base. In its simplest extraction, they stopped paying attention to their customer. They stopped listening to what customers wanted in their shopping experience and they excluded them from the market because they focused on profit margins before satisfying the customer’s need.

With an opportunity to change with the times, it is the DEC’s duty to pay attention, and to advance the ideals that improve our customer’s daily work and our society at large.