What’s the difference between direct and indirect supervision?

Do inmates respond differently when switched from one type of supervision to another? You bet they do


Many perceptions and opinions are verbalized when everyday citizens are asked a simple question, “What is prison like?” Vivid imagery portraying bars, solitary confinement, sadistic guards, no air conditioning, and deplorable conditions often surface at one end of the spectrum. The other end of the scale, however, depicts an environment in which inmates have all the luxuries of home, including conjugal visitation, cable television, and gourmet meals.

The prevailing fact throughout all of these responses is that most civilians do not truly understand what jail or prison is like and, furthermore, they will probably have no understanding of the different inmate supervision styles utilized to maintain safety and security.

Direct vs. indirect supervision
When I first began my career with the Louisiana Department of Corrections, I was introduced to a multi-security level institution which provided different supervision styles that were totally reliant on the security class of the inmate population.

For example, minimum and medium security inmates were housed in dorm/barracks style housing units which had two officers assigned twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

There were no cells in these housing units and the officers were expected to make frequent and unpredictable rounds in order to show officer presence, develop rapport with the inmates, observe and deter security threats, and detect any changes in the mood and/or affect of the inmates under their care and custody.

This is considered direct supervision and, shocking the conscience of most civilians, called for officers to be at a 1:75 ratio with the inmates.

Indirect supervision was preferable when the inmates were classified to either close or maximum security. This style is often depicted as a linear format with cells and officers making rounds on an hourly basis. These “cell blocks” are usually where officers fall victim to feces (and other bodily fluids) being thrown, cell extraction situations, and inmate suicide attempts. Indirect supervision can come in many forms and is not necessarily explicit to higher security level inmates.

The experiment
The question now becomes, what is the difference between these two styles and do inmates act differently dependent on which style of supervision is being operationalized in order to maintain control?

Recently, at the county jail I work in, we made a drastic switch from direct supervision to indirect housing units. The effects were actually profound, if one pays attention to all the idiosyncratic tenants of psychology. With direct supervision, the inmates had a twenty-four hour a day view of the corrections deputy. There was no mistake or misinterpretation that the housing unit belonged to the deputy and that the inmate population was subservient to the whims of the deputy.

I noticed that with this style of supervision destruction of property was a rare occurrence, PREA violations were very well constrained, and incidents of deputies having to use force were generally low.

The results
As we made the switch to indirect supervision I noticed a general change among the inmates. This new style required deputies to conduct watch tours on an hourly basis and be in the housing units for laundry pass, med-pass, and other operational requirements.

The change was subtle at first, but it become very clear after several months. The inmates no longer viewed the jail as the belonging to the deputy; they perceived it as the inmates’ domain and the deputies were just visitors on occasion.

Fishing, physical altercations, and other illicit and blatant jail rule violations became harder to monitor and deter. Although subconscious, inmates began to feel more entitled and minor acts of destruction began occurring.

Our response
Our department implemented a direct/indirect style of supervision in which deputies were constantly in and out of all the housing units showing officer presence, making erratic watch tours, conducting thorough cell inspections, and utilizing order-maintenance policing to deter even the most minor of violations.

With this style, I believe we have made great progress to take back control and show the inmate population that no matter what mode of supervision we utilize, this is our house and the rules will be adhered to.

Officer presence must be at the forefront of any module of supervision because it is the very first deterrent against crime, both on the street and in correctional institutions. 

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