Understaffed prisons and jails are now a national concern

Considerations for safety and security must supersede any changes that relate to saving the almighty dollar


From Ohio to Florida, Tennessee to New Mexico, understaffed jails and prisons are on the rise. Without the proper amount of staff available, safety and security is jeopardized. A&E’s 60 Days In shows a Jail in Clark County Indiana that highlights the consequences of an understaffed facility — an issue that was never brought to light by the producers of the hit show. 

On a greater scale, the same issues that were made evident on A&E can be seen elsewhere across the country. A recent riot in Florida, the rise of assaults on staff in Arizona, Ohio, New York, Washington, Tennessee (just to name a few), the closing of jails and prisons nationally, are all consequences of understaffing. 

Changes that are being made due to budget concerns are being done without talking to the frontline employee. The frontline employee is the life blood of the facility and they stand immediate to the affected areas of change. When someone from the outside, looking in, decides to implement changes to available staff, they should first go to those areas that will be affected and get educated by frontline staff. Frontline staff can then advise those individuals of the concerns that must be met and even help to implement the needed solutions.

Sacrificing safety and security to save a dollar should never be a choice. Remember, corrections should not be considered a profit oriented business. Considerations for safety and security must supersede any changes that relate to saving the almighty dollar. Human life is at risk. The safety and security of the institution and the public is at risk. 

Frontline employees, who are definitely not motivated by profit, will provide the individuals with the needed answers that should be addressed before any cutbacks are made. Again, frontline staff are the ones most concerned about safety and security because it is their life that’s on the line. 

Staff Presence
Let’s talk about some of the concerns of an understaffed facility. First and foremost, staff presence. There is a difference between "span of supervision," and "area of control." Span of supervision can be determined by where the cameras are located and what the staff member can see through the monitors. Again, this is just monitoring activity from a distance and is, by definition, reactionary. 60 Days In highlighted staff who monitored cameras and then reacted to whatever incident took place. But, in order to deter crime, staff needs to be preventive. They need to create a presence. That presence is known as direct supervision and falls under area of control. With a direct presence, staff can interact and prevent. Ideally, we should have two staff members on the floor to back each other up and one, safely removed, watching the cameras. Again, that would be in an ideal world. 

When an individual from the outside enters to make changes, they may not see the immediate need for presence on the floor because they do not know the difference between span of supervision and area of control. They are looking to monitor and react, but our role as correctional officers are to prevent and control. If correctional officers were solely reactionary, lives would be lost. By having a presence, correctional officers will deter contraband, assaults, escapes, etc. Keeping a body, preferably two, on the floor is needed and plays a big role in crime prevention. 

Correctional Fatigue
Talking about bodies, correctional officers must be alert to do their job. They need to be hypervigilant and think five steps ahead. Five steps ahead keeps them in preventive mode and eliminates a solely reactionary model. But, in order to be alert, they need to be rested. When bodies are put onto a post, they need to be able to do the job. Lives are on the line, both inmates and staff, and a tired body eliminates the high level of alertness needed to prevent. 

Officers across the country are getting mandated onto a double shift because the facility is down on manpower. After running on a floor plan that is bare minimal, the higher ups begin to scramble to find coverage for the post they deem is essential. With limited staff available, they mandate. They mandate Officers with no care of their ability to work because the higher ups are in desperation mode. They need to get the post covered. Being tired from working three to four sixteen-hour shifts in a row, the officer gets mandated again. 

They are now expected to be efficient in the carrying out of their duties and will be held immediately responsible if they fail at any level. Barely able to keep their eyes open, they are put into an area which the lives of many (inmates, staff, civilians, etc.) rely solely on their ability to act. That tired Officer, believe it or not, can be considered a threat to the secure and orderly running of the facility. The desperate need to put a body in play is a reactionary model that’s old and can easily been prevented if the facility was properly staffed. 

The closing of one facility becomes a burden to the rest. In some cases, an understaffed facility may get closed down and the population of inmates gets transferred elsewhere. When this occurs, the one facility that was running in a safe and secured manner now becomes overcrowded. Inmate-to-staff ratio goes up and a few years later, the same problem arises (side note: when this occurs, the powers that be may just decide to stop sending people to jail or prison when they commit a crime/no available bed space). 

Maybe the better option would keep the facility active and provide more staff. This will better solve the issue in the long run, but, unfortunately, most people that are involved in the long run (frontline staff) are not being given the chance to express their opinion. Those who are able to make the changes look for the immediate outcome by placing a Band-Aid on the problem. Band-Aids eventually come off, but, for them, that’s okay because they will be long gone. Again, frontline will be there when the Band-Aid comes off scrambling in the dark because a once great working facility is now understaffed. 

Training, Searches, and Other Preventive Measures
Without the needed manpower to be effective, training, random searches, investigation, etc., just cannot get done. Constantly running at the bare minimum will eliminate the peripherals that are needed to run a safe and secured facility. Can’t do training if we can’t cover the shift. Can’t do random searches if the facility is running on bare minimum. 

Training and random searches (along with other preventive measures) should never be considered and if we can, rather it should be considered a must. Right now, with limited manpower, those needed elements are only employed during the rare times the facility has a few over. Ideally, random searches and training should be counted as needed and provided accordingly. These are not luxuries that Corrections can go without. These are preventive measures that deters crimes, protects safety and security and, most importantly, saves lives. 

What Can Be Done?
One way to prevent understaffing is to provide an incentive to the people that need to be hired and the ones the facility needs to keep employed. This is a true domino effect. A career in corrections should never be considered a last resort. Those that are employed need to have a sense of trust for the people that are being hired. They need to feel a sense of comfort knowing that the persons being hired can do the job effectively and professionally. Therefore, an incentive to get the right employee for the job must be provided. It will provide the department with better candidates to choose from and ultimately lead to a safer and more secured facility. 

Right now, when there is an extreme effort to hire because the incentive is low and the ability to maintain staff is ineffective, the department may begin hiring out of desperation. As mentioned above, it is not about just having a body on the post, but rather having an able body who can do the job professionally and, most importantly, be trusted. With low incentive and desperate hiring in effect, can those already employed trust in those who are now entering the field of corrections? Without that trust and incentive, senior staff may begin walking out. If that becomes the case, the well-being of the institution and the public will be in serious jeopardy.

Understaffing is no longer a secret that can be kept in the dark. How can it? Lately, escapes, assaults, contraband, and shows like 60 Days In highlight the consequences of an understaffed facility. This is something that can no longer be ignored because the consequences are clear and in the public’s eyes. If you are in the power to make changes, stop and think. Remember, it’s not about the money, it is about safety and security. If you want answers that can be the most effective, get your ass to the frontline and ask them what changes are needed and how can you be the most effective?

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