Confronting COVID-19 requires strong leadership, honest assessments, communication and education

Correctional leaders should follow these six steps to address the crisis, reduce the risk and provide much-needed support


By Sheriff Rich Stanek (ret.)

No level of planning could have fully prepared us for the difficult news coming from our nation’s jails and correctional facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Heightened levels of contagion and the associated stress and anxiety are impacting our medical, security and behavioral health staff who work in these facilities, as well as those in custody.

What more can we do to address the crisis, reduce the risk and provide much-needed support? If I were still on the job today, these six steps would be on my to-do list and I hope they’re on yours as well.

  1. Acknowledge the problems, risks and fear. Transparency and communication help us to work through these challenges. More information can provide a baseline for developing a realistic view of the problems and allow us to transition toward identifying solutions. Open up and encourage news reports and information sharing to build confidence that important information is being shared on a timely basis, even if the news is difficult to hear.
  2. Walk through your facilities and ask your command staff to do the same. Observe and make an honest assessment about what you are seeing. Be a visible leader, listener and an observer – your presence will demonstrate your commitment and support for your employees and line staff. You may find there are problems with a quick or obvious solution where you may easily prioritize your resources and next steps.
  3. Consider grant funding to meet unanticipated needs. The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance currently has $850 million available for state and local public safety agencies for COVID-19 related expenses. Sterilizing equipment, supplies, trainings, medical care costs and developing teleconferencing capabilities all qualify for these funds that are available through May 29, 2020, for use over a two-year period. For more information, click here.
  4. Be clear about what personal protective equipment, supplies and other equipment are or are not available. It’s important to have access to masks, gloves, soap, disinfectant and hand sanitizer. If the items are not available now, explain why and when they will be made available.
  5. Provide education about how to minimize infection (e.g., washing hands properly, avoid touching the face and hard surfaces, and keeping social distancing guidelines). Increase your cleaning budget, bring in additional cleaning staff if possible, provide liberal access to cleaning supplies, and schedule daily or more frequent cleaning protocols.
  6. Consider new strategies for easing the stress and anxiety associated with the virus along with the physical limitations and environment everyone in the facility must accept. This could be done by playing music, relaying positive messages, facilitating and encouraging physical activity, sharing reading materials, and teaching healthy coping skills and strategies. From breathing techniques to music therapy to physical stretching and meditation, there are no-cost ways to manage stress without compromising security. Get innovative with your solutions. For example, can you make more call-times available for inmates through use of discretionary funds or donations?

As difficult as this COVID-19 crisis has become for our jails and prisons, we are also seeing some promising changes, some of which will have a lasting and positive effect for corrections.

  • Uniformed professionals are working across sectors. Doctors and nurses, first responders (i.e., EMTs, law enforcement and firefighters), the National Guard, and staff in private and public hospitals are all working together to share equipment and personnel while preparing hospital wards for COVID-19 patients. Although some local and state governments have discussed a plan for providing hazard pay for their service during this crisis, we should also recognize that these positions have always been and will continue to be at-risk employment for our front-line workers.
  • Videoconferencing will now allow inmates to access medical care remotely, attend court hearings remotely and improve visitation. This transition will save staff time while increasing security and improving service levels. Our staff will be able to train in live virtual classrooms, making additional training options far more accessible and far less expensive.
  • In some areas of the country, corrections and detention officers are often being trained, paid and respected for the important responsibilities they undertake and the duties they fulfill in our justice system. For instance, in Minnesota, we provide survivor benefits to the families of fallen corrections officers – a long-overdue recognition. These officers should not be seen as the second class of police officers. Paying our correctional officers a reasonable salary to ensure that we recruit, hire and maintain quality personnel must be included as a priority in any plan for improving our jails and prisons.

Looking Forward

As we remain hopeful that the curve will flatten, communities will reach and surpass the peaks and safely reopen, we must always keep in mind that the dangers and risks are not going away anytime soon. We must not forget to support the brave men and women who walk into these facilities every day with a heart for service, and we must not forget the at-risk and vulnerable men and women who make up the population in these facilities.

COVID-19 is a virus of pandemic proportion and there will be lessons to learn for decades to come, but for now, if all we can do is confront the problem, then let us confront it and do what we do best – serve and protect.

NEXT: 7 face mask purchasing and policy considerations for corrections


About the author

Rich Stanek is principal consultant with Public Safety Strategies Group, LLC. He has 35 years of law enforcement experience and operated the largest jail in the Upper Midwest when he served as Sheriff of Hennepin County, MN, from 2007-2019.

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