Guide: Prison Architect – Building Your First Prison

A bit lost as to how to start building prisons in Prison Architect? Here's a guide for maximising your strategy.

A bit lost as to how to start building prisons in Prison Architect? Here's a guide for maximising your strategy.

After previewing Introversion’s brilliant playable alpha of Prison ArchitectI thought that I should make a nice little guide for those who are a bit flummoxed in starting out, given how I had mentioned the learning curve after the introductory story chapter/tutorial is more like a cliff. Even if you’ve built many prisons, hopefully this will still be an enlightening look at general strategy, too.

The blueprints for the first phase are available on the Steam Workshop. Please fell free to download and use it, or just have a gander for reference.

NB: This guide is based on version 14 of the alpha.

Part 1 of 2 of my video walkthrough to supplement this guide. Both parts (as a playlist) can be viewed here

Phase 1 Strategy Overview

Build a basic, secure, and functioning prison to sell off in order to have more money to build a new larger prison. Why? This is because once your money runs out it’s an incredibly slow process to build funds up enough to expand. It’s much quicker (and satisfying) to sell your prison and start over with more than double the initial amount of building money.

Building Your Prison


The first thing you’ll need to do is accept all grants, as $10,000 is nowhere near enough to build the basics. So go into your reports and select all available grants. This will give you a total of $90,000 to build with. It might seem like enough, but believe me, it’ll just about cover this phase alone, so don’t go mad!

Although not a tutorial like in the introduction scenario, these do give new players a good outline of how to set-up their first prison. Bear in mind is that there is no restriction to the order in which to do them, so you don’t have follow them through methodically, as completing one grant won’t allow or disallow you to start another.

Staff Entrance/Security Office

I always like to build a little entrance next to the deliveries and by the kitchen to maximise the effectiveness of staff AI routing. The trick to this is using the “Staff Doors” on either side. Whereas “Jail Doors” are very secure, they require a guard to open them for any staff or prisoner to pass through. Therefore, unless you have loads of available guards, it can take a long time for cooks and workers to simply get in and out of the prison to go about their usual business.

“Staff Doors” automatically don’t let prisoners through. If prisoners have no other option but to be routed through these, then they’ll require a guard to open them. Therefore, by creating this little entrance, you’ve got a nice easy route for your staff to get in and out of the delivery set-down without letting prisoners through.

However, these do not last as long as jail doors during prisoner destruction sprees or riots, so it is a weak point in the perimeter. Therefore, it’s advised to research a security chief through beaurocracy and “Deployment” as soon as you can. Then, you can deploy a guard in this staff entrance area and designate it as a “Staff Only” zone, making it a bit more secure.

It’s also worth making this entrance 4×4 as you can later, upon researching CCTV, turn this into a Security Office, meaning the stationed guard can also look at up to 3 CCTV cameras.

Visual of my plan for your first prison (phase 1).

Holding Cell Capacity

As you’re expecting eight prisoners to arrive, there’s the temptation to build a separate holding cell to accommodate eight. However, I like to build it to accommodate 16. Prisoners usually arrive in groups of eight, which means, if I don’t have enough cells to accommodate them, I can still take two days’ worth of intakes, which is plenty of time to expand whilst still cashing in on the federal grant per accepted prisoner.

Furthermore, I’ve seen intakes go up to 21 for one day, therefore a larger holding cell would certainly help. Of course, don’t forget, you can always close your prison to new prisoners if you think you won’t be able to handle the influx.

Don’t overload it though, as it’ll detriment the “Privacy” stat and risk causing a riot, or, if there aren’t enough beds, deprive prisoners of sleep, which is just as dangerous.

Holding Cell Location

What I’ve noticed with the AI routing rules, is that during a specified activity in the regime, all prisoners will flock to the nearest designated area for the activity. Because of this, instead of building a separate holding cell and showers away from the main cell block, I’ve actually incorporated the holding cell into the main cell block itself.

This is because I was noticing that either; a) prisoners in the holding cell will not use the separate shower block I set aside for them, but go to the main one instead, or b) all my prisoners would just go and use the holding cell’s shower block.

This can be solved with some tweaking of the regime, but it just seems cheaper and more effective to put the holding cell inside the cell block. It also means that transferring prisoners from the holding cell to new/available cells is also quite quick.

Common Room/Recreation Stat

On the game’s wiki, the bookshelf is described as being a cheap alternative to the television. However, having made a common room with nothing but bookshelves, I find that prisoners seem very unwilling to use them, and if they are and I just haven’t noticed, it hardly makes a dent on the recreation stat. Therefore just fill it with TVs and pool tables. They might be more expensive but they’re certainly more effective.


There is no reason for needing to incorporate these as part of your main complex. As any office staff (warden, accountant, psychiatrist, security chief, foreman) will just stay in there doing very little. You could just place offices anywhere you wish without causing any problems.

Managing Your Prison


In order to sell you prison, you must be in the black for your prison valuation. This is a calculation (unlocked by hiring an accountant) of how much you can sell your prison for. This is done partly through the cost of materials you’ve put into building the prison, and also the amount of functioning cells you have. You also get a bonus based on the number of in-game hours you go without an incident (serious injury, death, or escape).

You will absolutely want to avoid deaths/unsolved murders and escapes. Each death will wipe $30,000 off your valuation, and each escape will wipe $60,000! A few of these and your prison will be worthless.

Prisoner Type

I would highly recommend starting off with only low risk prisoners. As it currently stands, the tier of prisoners you accept at your prison makes no difference to the amount of federal grant your receive per prisoner, ie you get the same amount for all types.

Low risk prisoners are the boring ones; they’re less likely to attack other prisoners and staff and try to escape. This will minimise the likelihood of getting penalised on your valuation.

Once you’ve sold off larger prisons and are starting off with more and more cash, you could then try mucking about with accepting normal and high risk prisoners. As they’re far more volatile, it certainly makes for a more interesting game and ramps up the sense of challenge.

Metal Detectors Are Your Friends

Yes, they’re expensive ($1,000) and drain you electricity meaning you’ll have to add more than a couple of capacitors (another $1,000 each) to your power station But they’re extremely useful in ensuring fewer attacks resulting in a serious injury or death from smuggled-in weapons, or attempted escapes from prisoners smuggling back spoons from the canteen. The best place to put them is at the entrance to the cell blocks, as they’ll therefore scan every prisoner as they go the bed.


This is another safeguard against successful escape attempts. DO NOT use the “Perimeter Wall”, as this is incredibly expensive and takes ages to build. Instead use the “Fence” which is FREE!

Prisoners only seem to want to tunnel beyond the outside wall, and not past the fence. Therefore when prisoners break free from their tunnel, you’ve got them running a gauntlet straight to you waiting guards.

Avoid Building Workshops

Once you’ve run out of money to build, sell your prison and then start again. Even if you’ve researched prison labour, and therefore can build yourself a workshop, these are very expensive to set up. You’ll need a minimum of $2,000 to spend on the required machines, which drain electricity meaning you’ll probably have to buy at least another capacitor. This is all on top of the actual building costs. This therefore makes workshops more suited for long-term sustainability and cash flow rather than a quick cash fix. For this very first prison, I don’t recommend building them at all.

The finished product, following the plan.

Build, Go Broke, Sell

Rinse and repeat, ensuring your next prison starts off with significantly more funds to build than the last. You’ll get the starter of $90,000 again in addition to what you sell your prison for.

  • Prison windows are expensive ($200 each) and seem to have little to no impact on environment stat.
  • Meal variety doesn’t seem to do anything at the moment, instead of significantly increasing the cost of feeding prisoners . When there’s been more balancing done in game, I’d wager that this will affect the environment stat. But right now, prisoners are just as happy with cabbage ad infinitum. Who needs bacon!

Next week, we’ll build a larger prison and start to go through some more of the advanced mechanics such as deployments, patrols, and prison labour!

Prison Architect playable alpha is available to buy from Steam. For more information about the game, visit

About the author


Bearded British game-bear. Likes his JRPGs accompanied with a G&T. Lives in London, UK. Also writes a lot about theatre and film. *jazz hands*