3 keys to writing effective jail reports
Your written report can turn what was a volatile and unpredictable incident into an example of a sensible and rational response
By Remington Scott
When the dust settles after a major jail or prison incident, written reports are often all that remain to justify your actions. In the event of an investigation, lawsuit, or administrative inquiry, it is crucial your reports can be read in a way that presents your decisions as reasonable and necessary.
Detailing specific observations, avoiding making assumptions and writing as clearly as possible will protect you and your facility from unneeded scrutiny. To put the reader in your shoes and make them understand what was going on in your mind during an incident, consider the following tips when writing your reports.
Specific details are better than vague descriptions
When describing your observations, specific details are better than vague descriptions. Explicit statements of what you saw, heard, felt, or smelled will put the reader in a position to better understand the decisions you made.
An effective report should lead the reader to the same conclusions you arrived at. You should not have to explicitly state those conclusions, but your statements should lead them to it.
For example, if you are dealing with a new arrest who you believe to be drunk or high, don’t simply state, “The new arrest appeared to me to be intoxicated.” During an investigation or cross-examination, you will be asked if you are acquainted with the individual you were describing. If you had never met them, you wouldn’t know how they behave when they are intoxicated.
Instead, consider describing your initial observations of their behavior. For example, “The new arrest was swaying from side to side as he stood in front of me. He seemed to be having trouble focusing his eyes on me, and when I asked him questions, his words were slurred.” These statements would lead most reasonable people to the conclusion that the individual being described is drunk. The specific details are a much stronger argument than simply stating, “I believed him to be drunk.”
Remember the reader doesn’t necessarily have the same training as you
This technique of offering up information to the reader can also be useful when reporting any use-of-force decisions.
Most people in our profession can fill in the gaps when you write, “Inmate Smith then became non-compliant.” We can imagine screaming, stomping and fighting with officers. But to readers outside of corrections, this wording is vague and unconvincing. We want the reader to have the same information that we were basing our decisions off of at the time.
Non-compliance can manifest in many forms, so be specific. Was the inmate yelling, punching the wall and pulling away from the escorting officer? Or were they simply sitting still on their bunk and refusing to obey commands? The inmate’s behavior dictates the level of force used, so it should be clear how they were resisting.
If you have any background information on the inmate that informed your decisions, share that as well. A history of fighting with other inmates or staff, harming themselves, or an especially extensive disciplinary file is worth mentioning. However, don’t go overboard when adding this information. Your reports should be both complete and concise, so stick to information directly relevant to the incident at hand.
Include background information and information from outside sources
It is important to document the information you were working with at any given time, whether that information is of your observation or not. If it is impacting your decision-making, it should be included in your report.
For instance, if you base your decision to stop the booking process or call an ambulance on the information you received from the arresting officer, you should include in your report where that information came from. If another officer tells you an individual is under the influence without a breath or blood test, you do not have to take them at their word. If your observations support that claim, include them in your report and state, “The arresting officer told me that the new inmate had been using meth.” Even if it turns out that he had not been using, or had been using a different substance, you still had that information in mind when you were interacting with them.
Reports support your decision-making
Readers outside of our chosen field (read jurors, defense attorneys, investigators and examiners) often have trouble understanding why we do the things we do. We make quick decisions based on years of training and experience that they don’t have. These decisions can impact people’s lives in significant ways, so we must be making them in a reasonable manner. Reporting your specific observations helps to support and justify your decision-making. Your written report can turn what was a volatile and unpredictable incident into an example of a sensible and rational response in the eyes of the reader.
Take our quiz: Are you including the right things in your reports?
About the author
Remington Scott is a jail deputy with the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He has worked in corrections and detention since 2017. He serves the Sheriff’s Office as a field training officer and disciplinary hearing officer.