By Tate McCotter, NIJO Executive Director
Those who work in correctional facilities know that the holiday season can be emotionally charged – for inmates and for the officers and staff working at a facility. Individual characteristics, which are found in virtually every inmate being booked into a jail (sadness, loss of self-esteem, withdrawal, anger, hopelessness, difficulty relating to others, etc.) may change within minutes and without notice, which can lead to potential assaults or suicide ideation. While it is impossible for officers to know and observe every action and thought produced by an inmate1, it is generally the responsibility of line level staff and first line supervisors to be the eyes and ears of the happenings within a facility to keep safety, security, order and discipline at the forefront. Being aware of those changes is not an easy task for staff and requires constant attention and observation.
Proper staffing remains a horribly challenging issue for the majority of administrations across the United States in part due to inadequate budgets. There are hiring and retention issues that often lead to skeleton staffing, especially during the holidays. There may be some very small, rural jails that struggle to keep 24-7 coverage when the jail is occupied by at least one inmate, but for the most part, administrators meet this requirement, recognizing the importance and necessity of proper staffing. Staff must be present in the facility 24-hours a day to be able to respond to:
- Injuries and other trauma resulting from fights, assaults, falls, suicide attempts, or other circumstances;
- Fires, chemical fumes, or other industrial-type accidents;
- Escapes or escape attempts;
- Known threats to inmate safety (i.e., known suicide ideation, threats by inmates to harm others, medical or mental health exigencies; and
- Other contingencies.
Staffing shortages lead to a number of potential issues related to the overall safety and security of the facility. When staffing is short, especially during the holidays, these operational practices may be useful to consider:
- Staffing Analysis. While the funding of staff may be entirely out their control, administrators should do everything they can to provide adequate staffing of shifts. A good staffing analysis2 may be very beneficial to determine the number of officers/staff needed. Because every jail is operated with varying management styles, are physically different, and hold inmates requiring different observation and care, consideration should be individualized factoring in key components including:
- Required posts for administration, supervision, security and observation
- Delivery of constitutionally required services (health care, medical, court, food services, laundry and cleaning details, religious programming, visitation, transport, etc.)
- Length of shifts options (8hr – 10hr – 12hr) to assist in scheduled development
- Calculated Shift Relief Factor based on how many hours are actually obtained from each full time position
- Ongoing evaluation and refinement of the coverage plan, schedule and effectiveness once implemented
Documentation of a staffing analysis, whenever possible, an outside independent review and verification of the staffing levels, may be very helpful to assist administrations in educating those who control the budget, as well as provide notification of the significance and ramifications of staffing shortages. As stated by the Supreme Court,3 a corrections official “would not escape liability if the evidence showed that he merely refused to verify underlying facts that he strongly suspected to be true, or declined to confirm inferences of risk that he strongly suspected to exist.” Administrators may find documentation including a staffing analysis and recorded, proactive efforts made to address staffing issues as a strong defense against deliberate indifference when dealing with staffing related issues.
- Compromised Duties and Responsibilities. Staffing shortages often lead to officers not following policies and procedures. In fact, there are many cases where an officer may find it outright impossible to follow policy due to inadequate staffing. On more than one occasion, an officer has had to make a decision to enter a housing unit alone to respond to an incident, sacrificing personal safety and perhaps the facility, because no other staff is available for assistance. While that may sound extreme, this is especially noticeable with the less noticeable, mundane daily tasks but are of significant importance related to the overall safety and security of the facility. There have been very noteworthy events involving escapes, in-custody deaths, and assaults where inadequate staffing led to compromising, horrific situations. Searches, living area checks, counts, response to medical needs, and monitoring of inmates in protective custody or suicide watch, were ignored or limited due to staffing shortages. Skeleton staffing can keep the ship afloat temporarily but it will eventually catch up and play a toll on the individual officers, fellow staff, administrators and public. As stated frequently, it will cost the purse holders more on the backend of an event than if they had simply paid for adequate staffing to prevent a lawsuit or settlement from occurring.
- Staff Morale. Officers are often required to work extra shifts to cover unplanned staff shortages (medical reasons, military or maternity leave, termination, resignation, etc). While some officers may appreciate the overtime, many officers find it stressful and difficult to manage life outside of work. This takes a toll on them, their families and social life. If skeleton staffing becomes a norm, it can lead to poor morale. The “I will never get caught up” attitude turns into complacency and routine operational procedures will be compromised.
- Mental Health of Officers. Correctional officers are first responders. Their workplace is an environment where the worst of humanity and human depravity is observed daily. Stress is part of the job – on and off duty. Increased stress and anxiety, especially during the holidays, can lead to poor decision making. There have been too many correctional officers that ended their own watch prematurely. We spend a lot of time training on the mental health of our inmates, but we do not spend enough time addressing the mental health of the officers and staff who are caring for them. Staffing levels directly contribute to the mental health of the officers and staff working in a jail.It is important to note (for both inmates and staff) that the idea that suicides occur more frequently during the holiday season is a long perpetuated myth. CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports that the suicide rate is, in fact, the lowest in December.4 The rate peaks in the spring and the fall. This pattern has not changed in recent years. The holiday suicide myth supports misinformation about suicide that might ultimately hamper prevention efforts. Administrators should be aware of the mental health of the staff, observing significant life events that may be occurring and address behavioral changes or comments that would be suggest the officer may be experiencing such challenges.
- See Legal-Based Jail Guideline D08.02.02 Suicide Risk Evaluation
- There are a number of outside organizations that can provide resources to assist in staffing analysis. In addition to numerous NIJO resources, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) “Staffing Analysis Workbook for Jails” may be useful.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2008) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (producer). Available from: URL: http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/index.html. [Accessed 2011 Dec 13].
- Farmer v. Brennan, 114 U.S. 1970, 1982 (1994)