Why and when to review your facility policies
Review of jail or prison policies and procedures is a critically important element of correctional management. But it can also be a complex and overbearing process that, if mishandled, can lead to devastating mistakes.
This article will look at why certain policies deserve more attention than others, when to review them and how to best execute the review process.
Why you should review policies
The main purposes of policy review are:
- To ensure that policies reflect the mission of the jail or prison, as set forth by management;
- To ensure that policies are in conformance with current legal standards and requirements, including constitutional rights of inmates, state statutes and/or administrative rules, applicable case law, and so on;
- To ensure that policies are as consistent as possible with actual practices in the facility;
- To ensure that the language of the policies is clear and understandable, so that staff members can properly use the policies as a tool to direct them in the performance of their duties.
When to review policies
In general, policies should be – at least minimally - reviewed at the following times:
- When they are initially drafted: Usually, it takes several drafts before a new policy is right.
- On a routine schedule: Policies and procedures are never static. Standards change and ideas about best practices change and evolve. Thus, it is important to have a plan in place for routine review of some or all policies and procedures. For example, many facilities routinely review some or all policies annually or bi-annually.
- When there has been a significant change to an applicable legal standard, such as a statute, administrative rule, and/or court decision; or a change to applicable accreditation standards: It is important to stay aware of such changes and to revise policies, when necessary, to reflect such changes.
- When there has been a significant change in ideas as to best practices or procedures in regard to an issue: As noted, ideas about the best ways to do things in a jail or prison always change and evolve. Whenever there has been a significant change in the ways things are done by management and/or line staff members, that change should be incorporated in the written policy on that issue, as well as in FTO or other in-house training.
- Following critical incidents: Following any critical incident, there should be a critical incident review (sometimes called administrative review), the key purpose of which is to discuss what happened during the incident and to see what, if anything, can be done to improve future performance or response in such incidents. An element of such review should always be to go over the policy or policies relevant to the incident, and to see if anything in them should be changed so as to improve future performance or response.
Which policies to review
Although it is important to routinely review all written policies and procedures, it probably makes sense to give certain issues special priority. This might include policies on high-risk and/or critical task issues—those that have to do with significant safety and/or security issues or those that may have a high liability risk management element.
For example, it might make sense to be sure to annually (at least) review policies and procedures on emergency response issues, such as response to fires or weather-related emergencies, or to riots or other disturbance emergencies, or to escape attempts, or to suicide attempts and so on. It might also make sense to annually review policies on key security-related procedures, such as searches of persons or living areas, counts, key control, security checks, and so on.
Other policy issues should be reviewed annually, at a minimum, because they are significant in terms of legal liability risk. This might include policies on key constitutional rights issues, such as use of force, searches—particularly strip searches, provision of adequate medical and mental health care, access to attorneys and legal materials, and provision of due process in regard to discipline and segregation. Such focus might also include First Amendment issues, such as religious practices and grievance procedures.
Who to involve in policy reviews
As noted, it is important to carefully plan for review of policies and procedures. Part of such planning involves deciding who will be involved in the policy review process. This decision depends on the size of the facility and number of personnel available for this task, as well as management philosophy regarding use of personnel.
In general, it is a worthwhile goal to proactively plan for involvement of correctional officers and first-line supervisors in policy review, at all of the stages of such review listed above. It is important to involve officers because they are the ones who have primary responsibility for carrying out the policies, and thus they have a stake in those policies. Also, they are the experts on how to do their jobs. It is, therefore, important to seek their input into the contents of policies, both when policies are initially drafted and whenever they are reviewed and revised.
Supervisors should be involved for the same reasons, and also because they are the ones who have primary responsibility for being sure that line staff members properly follow the policies.
Another benefit of proactively involving both correctional officers and supervisors in the policy review process is that doing so is more likely to result in their supporting and “buying into” policies and procedures. They are more likely to feel that the policies are theirs too, not just edicts delivered by management from on high.
Focus of Policy Reviews
It is important to set forth clear and specific expectations for policy reviews—that is, what reviewers are to look for and provide feedback about. For example, following are a few such questions:
- Does this policy continue to reflect our mission?
- Does the policy continue to reflect legal standards that affect our operation, as you understand these?
- Is what the policy says consistent with our actual current practices?
- Does the policy and procedure(s) indicate the best actual practices—that is, ways of doing things?
- Is the language of the policy sufficiently clear and understandable?
The answers to these questions can be valuable. However, it is then important to ask reviewers to indicate specific suggestions as to improvement, if they have such suggestions. The message should be: Don’t just tell me how this policy is deficient…tell me how it can be better.
One option is ask individual staff members to review policies and give their feedback. Another option is to set up committees or task groups to do so. An advantage of this option is that it allows for discussion - perhaps debate - and, hopefully, consensus among staff members as to how policies could be improved. Ideally, such committees or task groups should include first-line supervisors and correctional officers.
As with all aspects of policy development and implementation, management has the final say-so as to the contents of policies. Policies are a management prerogative.
However, good managers will (or should) always try to find ways to involve correctional staff members — including officers and supervisors — in the process, including during reviews of policies, so as to get good ideas and to best secure the support of staff members for the policies.