Team Quickly Turns Old Fort Into Detention Facility
By Elaine Eliah
Special to American Forces Press Service
That's the task that faced the Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence and contractor ECC International.
"We and our contract partner were up to the challenge," said Tom Russell, AFCEE's director of worldwide installation support.
The team got the order to proceed in August, but the challenge began months earlier, when the U.S. military sought to expand the capacity of Iraq's detention facilities. In northern Iraq, several rectangular forts with turrets rounding each corner dot the landscape around Kirkuk, Erbil, and in the mountains of Sulaymaniyah, near the Iranian border. Officials selected Fort Suse, built in 1977 for the Iraqi military, as the most cost-effective way to create new detention space without spending a great deal of money.
In the spring, Army Maj. Frank McCormick, an engineer assigned to the staff of the commander of American detainee operations in Iraq, made three preliminary surveillance visits to Fort Suse.
"The goal was to hold the maximum number of detainees, with the maximum prisoner-to-guard ratio, but with the minimum risk to prison guards," he said.
"It only makes sense to bring the end user in early," added Louis Perez Jr., ECCI's project manager at Fort Suse, "especially when you're building this on the fly."
The facility was built in conjunction with Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, which is responsible for training Iraqi military, police and security personnel. Designed as a self-contained unit with no exterior buildings, it eventually will transition from being an internment center to become an Iraqi prison.
The team had expected to get five weeks' notice, which would have allowed ordering items with long lead time. But a delay in finalizing the contract award meant that the first detainees would arrive before the permanent power generation plant, a matter remedied with a generator provided by the U.S. military.
Other than that, only the visitation rooms and the medical facility were not complete by Oct. 1. Officials expect that work, along with detention space for 800 more detainees, to be finished by Dec. 1.
"My colleagues here said nobody can do the prison in eight weeks," said Hoshiar Kamal, an Iraqi subcontractor who started working construction with his father in 1970 and -- except for brief employment as a banker and tax collector, and a not-so-brief two-year imprisonment under Saddam Hussein -- has built up one of the area's leading construction companies. When one of his competitors recently came to see the prison, Kamal said, he couldn't believe his eyes. "The man said, 'Now when Hoshiar goes for a project, we will step back,'" Kamal added.
During construction his firm employed 250 laborers and managed another 150 men subcontracted to plaster and paint. "We pay them well and provide three meals a day," said Sardar Faiq, lead engineer for ECCI's subcontractor. He added that their biggest challenge on the project was lifting the 2-ton iron cell gratings into place.
"There were very few structural items here," McCormick noted. "We were mostly dealing with partition and cosmetic work." The team hadn't been on the job long, though, when changes started rolling in. "Any battle plan is a great plan," Perez said, "but it changes as soon as you go into it."
Original plans called for renovating the city water treatment system to supply the detention center. This had to be changed to a trucked water supply with two 200,000-gallon water tanks built to ensure three days of on-hand storage.
"When things needed to be changed, they needed to be changed quickly," McCormick said. "All the stakeholders are here every day. Without having the team together on the ground, it couldn't have been done."
The kitchen was just one such change. The original plans for the detention center called for meals to be outsourced. "When they gave us the go-ahead to build the kitchen, we were ready to start. We met with the kitchen equipment guy the same day."
Perez and McCormick said the flexibility AFCEE gave contractors and end users was the key element in keeping the project on schedule, but both acknowledged that without teamwork, Fort Suse couldn't have been done this well this quickly.
McCormick credited Army Staff Sgt. Brian Stuckey with being a key to the project's success by making good use of his skills as a noncommissioned officer. "A good NCO refuses to have anyone above or below them fail," McCormick said.
Stuckey, with 15 years of military police prison guard experience, will remain at Fort Suse until December, working with the 82nd Airborne Division and Justice Department personnel to mentor 450 Iraqi guards, 150 at a time. The Iraqis eventually will take over operations at Fort Suse.
Prison comforts, Stuckey said, aren't only for prisoners. "The more we give them, the easier it is for the guards," he said. For soldiers' safety, a six-foot walkway was created, decreasing individual cell area and reducing the capacity of each cell by 12 prisoners. The color scheme - beige-browns for holding areas and blue-gray for living quarters - was chosen to easily identify trespassers at a distance and to reduce stress for soldiers who must live and work in the same facility, the soldier explained.
Russell said completing the work in just eight weeks is "an incredible feat."
"My hat is off to the AFCEE Iraq team and ECCI for delivering this project on time and on budget," he said.
(Elaine Eliah is a communications specialist with ECC International Baghdad.)
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