How isolation affects your officers

New direct supervision jails may help with inmate management, but at the cost of our relationships with other officers


By Sgt. Tamara McDiarmid

I began my career as my jail was ready to open; a then state of the art facility that included a fairly new concept in 1992: direct supervision. This concept was about a decade old, with some jails nationwide moving toward the idea that having an officer in the living area with the inmate population would make them easier to manage rather than control. My jail, at that time, was half linear and half new generation jail. The staff were reluctant at best to embrace this new concept of inmate management; however, fast forward 20 years and it became the new normal.

In 2010, the decision was made to upgrade the existing linear jail. Repairs to a decades-old linear building made the decision to build a new facility to replace the linear jail more fiscally responsible. As a result, in 2012, two beautiful buildings were built to replace the linear jail and were opened too much fanfare.

You may wonder where all this is going. As many older, more senior officers can attest to, working in a linear jail most often meant working with partners at a central officers’ station except for the intermittent cell checks, med pass and any other inmate activity that would take you away from your officer station. Linear jails meant that you were removed from the inmates and did not have interaction with them unless something was wrong or an activity such as meals had to be completed. With the advent of the new generation jail, with the direct supervision philosophy, it’s one officer assigned to one floor with the inmates in the living area. It’s good for inmate management reasons, but as a supervisor, there should be concerns for the wellbeing of your officers.

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Here’s what has come to my attention since my facility has gone completely to a direct supervision facility.

First, no matter what shift your officers work (8, 10 or 12 hours), your officers who work in direct supervision duty stations are by themselves for the majority of their shift, if not their whole shift.

Second, this means the only people they have around them for their shift will be inmates. If you have a facility like this, are you aware of this and the toll it could take on your officers?

This isolation from any other officer during their shift can be mentally and emotionally difficult. With a new generation, direct supervision jail, I have noticed that working relationships that were so easily forged in the past due to multiple officer working stations have disappeared due to the isolation presented by one officer duty stations that come with this type of facility. This is especially true of the overnight shift when the facility is already at a lower staffing level.

We as supervisors need to be aware of the officers on our shift and be able to detect if there are any warning signs coming regarding their job. Isolation from other officers due to duty station assignment should be as important to a supervisor as whether they are having problems at home, substance abuse, etc.

Why?

Because the isolation can make them susceptible to any number of games that inmates play, especially new officers who have not had time to acclimate themselves to the institutional corrections beyond the academy and FTO programs.

Remind your officers that work these isolated one person duty stations to take any break that is offered during the shift. Too many times it’s easier to stay in their assigned duty station for the shift.

Encourage the officers to leave, go to a break room if you have one, talk with other officers, and foster those working relationships that are now harder to maintain with work stations manned by one. Check in with your officers regularly to make sure that they are not getting burned out being in the area they are all the time.

Even a small change of scenery can be good and might help with the mental wellbeing of your officers. Last, encourage your officers to get to know their co-workers. After all, we work as a team and succeed as a team, even if we are placed in one person duty stations.

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