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What is a Holding Cell?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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A holding cell, sometimes referred to as a prison cell or lockup, is generally a small room designed for holding inmates of a prison, jail, or other type of correctional facility. Traditionally built of brick and mortar, newer holding cells are often made primarily of metal and are designed to allow minimal physical manipulation by those within the cell. Some modern cell designs are even prefabricated or modular, to allow easier construction of holding cell units and to make the design and construction of a prison or jail easier and potentially less costly.

Holding cells have changed in design, construction materials, and level of security, but they have almost always shared certain traits. Typically built to keep a person inside from getting out, holding cells are often designed with a single door as well as one or more windows to allow natural light to enter the cell, though these windows are typically covered by metal bars or mesh to prevent tampering or escape. A holding cell can also be a windowless room that is lit only through unnatural light and affords little comfort to a prisoner.

Most holding cells are designed to allow a minimum of prisoner manipulation. A holding cell with a toilet in it, for example, will usually be constructed with a stainless steel toilet that is securely anchored into the ground or walls. This prevents graffiti as well as the use of the toilet or parts of it in creating weapons. A holding cell is usually designed for imprisonment and functionality, not comfort or aesthetic appeal.

Modern holding cell design typically resembles the basic form of holding cells from the past century, but with some improvements and added convenience. Often made from steel bars or woven steel rods, newer cells can be prefabricated and brought to a larger prison or jail building for installation, or consist of modular designs that allow individual pieces to be constructed and then pieced together at a building sight. In both types, exposed bolts and sharp edges are kept to a minimum to help ensure prisoners cannot use the holding cell itself to create weapons.

A prefabricated holding cell is usually made with steel bars or woven steel rods and comes with a heavy security door. These doors are typically designed with an automatic locking mechanism for easier security and can be built with a number of different lock types or outfitted with a specific lock provided by a customer. Modular holding cells allow a correctional facility to order individual pre-made panels that are then brought to the facility and installed on-site. These can be built and fit to order, with options covering ceiling type, door lock preference, and other features such as anchored metal benches with handcuff rails built into them.

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