This paper is drawn from a series of articles that have been presented in Sheriff magazine over the past several years. These articles formed the foundation for the Jail Staffing Analysis 3rd Edition book that is the final stages of editing.

Staffing Is the Backstop

In the past ten years I have worked with many jails to help managers solve serious operational problems,usually involving safety and security for inmates,staff and the public. All too often, the problems start with the design of the jail and the assumptions that designers and officials made about the level of staffing that would be needed to operate the new facility. This article explores the difference between observation and supervision, and the problems encountered when officials, designers, and sometimes managers confuse the two.

Understanding the Difference Between Observation and Inmate Supervision

When construction is complete and a new jail opens, assumptions about staffing needs are put to the test. Too often, staffing estimates provided by planners and designers prove inaccurate. In many cases, jail managers must find ways to effectively supervise inmates in a facility that was designed to rely on observation instead of supervision.

Effective Supervision Is a Key to Safety and Security

Many state jail standards require frequent “health and welfare checks” to confirm the presence and well-being of every inmate. Tennessee and Idaho require such inmate checks at least every 30 minutes for all inmates; Maine requires at least every 60 minutes for minimum security inmates, 30 minutes for medium, and 15 minutes for maximum. Ohio requires 60 minutes for all inmates.

The American Correctional Association’s (ACA) Standards for Small Jails require every inmate to be “personally observed by a correctional officer at least every 30 minutes, but on an irregular schedule.” In August 2010, the ACA Standards Committee adopted a similar standard for the new Core Jail Standards and 4th Edition Performance Based Standards for Adult Local Detention Facilities (ALDF).

“Personally Observe?”

Some of the confusion around the issue of inmate supervision is caused by the longstanding use of the term “personally observe” in case law and standards.

A 1993 Jail Bulletin issued by state officials in Nebraska attempted to clarify the nature of inmate supervision.

“Nebraska Jail Standards require that jail staff view inmates personally at least once every hour and document these checks…At a minimum, personal checks should include observing each inmate at least hourly to make sure they are alive and well. Jail officers should be able to see the inmate’s flesh and observe breathing if an inmate is in his/her bunk.”

Many state and local procedures use the term “living, breathing flesh” to describe the requirements for personal observation. Although the term “observe” is used frequently to describe practices that are intended to produce supervision, it is clear that a supervising officer must be close enough to each inmate to ascertain their physical condition.

A 1974 federal district court decision found electronic surveillance, by itself, to be inadequate. It went on to describe some of the elements that comprise supervision. According to the court:

“The purpose of personal supervision is to see, to hear, to sense the moods of prisoners, to anticipate danger, to provide humanness instead of the cold eye of the T.V. camera, and to be able to react quickly and efficiently.”

Effective Supervision Brings Staff and Inmates Closer

Jail designs that isolate staff from inmates behind one or more barriers make it more difficult to implement effective supervision. Such designs are often predicated on the assumption that an officer who is observing inmates from a distance is also supervising them. The authors of a recent NIC publication argue that barriers between staff and inmates prevent supervision:

“Security doors that offer limited or no view into the housing units, long corridors that separate staff areas from housing units, and multiple security doors are some of the literal barriers that may separate staff and inmates. These barriers prevent staff from seeing, hearing, and sensing the mood and activities of the inmates. Where staff do not have a presence, they do not have control.” This may seem counter-intuitive to some. But eliminating barriers and increasing staff contact with inmates reduces incidents and thereby increases safety for all—including staff.

Some argue that a glassed-in control center that has views into some inmate housing areas fulfills the need for “presence.” In practice, sights lines that appear sufficient during the design process are often disappointing when construction is completed.

Sight Lines Have Limits

Direct sight lines from fixed posts are certainly desirable. Directly viewing a corridor without having to use a camera is usually preferable. Many designers attempt to maximize the scene that an officer in a fixed post may view. But this good concept can become a liability when:

  • So many views are attempted that the control room becomes larger than necessary, requiring an officer to move around in order to take advantage of sight lines. In this case, there is no longer a single place in the control room from which an officer may take advantage of all intended sight lines.
  • Designers over-estimate the limits of the sight line, such as a view into an inmate housing area that has blind spots.

Figure 1 provides an example of the first problem—oversizing the control room in an effort to improve sight lines. In this facility,an officer must move to several locations within the control room in order to take advantage of sight lines.

Figure 2 provides a photo of the control room,which is nearly 30 feet long. The equipment and furnishings in the control room make it even harder for an officer to move around in an effort to take advantage of sight lines.

Looks Good On Paper, But…

Some designers emphasize improved “sight lines” from fixed posts as an efficient way to provide supervision. But isolating staff in this way makes them spectators instead of managers because they must rely on electronic means of communication, such as intercoms. Further,they are often tied to their posts because they operate critical security controls, such as door locking devices.


Jails are difficult to design because they must accommodate a broad range of activities that often pose conflicts. Well-intentioned attempts to provide many lines of sight from a single fixed point, such as a control center, often result in degraded sight lines. Effective inmate supervision is the foundation for jail operations. Effective design promotes efficient and effective supervision and does not confuse supervision with observation.

= = = = = = = = = =

Rod Miller founded CRS Incorporated in 1972 and has headed the non-profit organization since then. His work has taken him to more than 1,400 jails and prisons throughout North America. He is the co-author of several books, including the three editions of the Jail Staffing Analysis series, the Jail Vulnerability Assessment Handbook, the Detention and Corrections Caselaw Quarterly, and the Detention and Corrections Caselaw Catalog (and 21 annual supplements). Contact him via email at, by phone at (717) 338-9100, by fax at (717) 718-6178 or by mail at 925 Johnson Drive, Gettysburg PA, 17325.



> Podcasts


> Expert Blog


> DACOTA References


> Featured


> Legal-Based Guidelines Monthly Brief


> News And Publications


> Press Releases


> Private Recap Pages


> Training Seminars



> Alabama




> Alabama Jail Administrators’ Council

Skip to content