Jail Standards, Classification, and Safety

Last week I sat in on a meeting of jail inspection agency leaders from around the United States. These people work in state government, and their mission is to ensure safety and security in the jails they work with. They or their staff members visit each local facility statewide to check whether these jails meet state and national standards and to identify any areas for improvement—in security training, staff supervision, physical plant needs, etc.

risk managementThis was my first experience with the group, and I came away impressed with their dedication and resourcefulness. They are educators and problem-solvers who do important work with limited resources.

Risk management is the point of jail inspection. It creates 360° benefits—less risk to the inmates confined in the jail, less risk to the people who work or volunteer there, and less financial risk to the agency and governmental unit through a reduction in liability.

Not all states have a jail inspection program, but they should. In fact, the Jail Inspectors group has done its own research to ferret out more agencies that are doing comparable work for adult or juvenile detention, tribal jails, etc.

People sometimes think the staff who work in jails/detention are biased against arrestees and defendants. It’s more accurate to say that jail staff have seen a lot of people at their worst moments, and they’ve seen a lot of assaults, and they know they need to protect themselves and their colleagues when incidents happen. (Acknowledgement:  some facilities do have climate and culture issues. Attitudes can be hard to change, and change takes considerable leadership and resources.)

People can arrive at a jail in any condition. Each person needs to be housed and managed in a way that keeps the individual and other inmates safe. Or as safe as possible, given that their behavior is never 100% predictable and that jail budgets are limited on staffing and facility construction.

Objective Jail Classification (OJC) provides a structured way to decide where a new inmate should be housed. It is the best, most consistent, and most legally defensible way to make a housing decision—both at initial intake and in later reassessments (for those inmates who remain in the jail for a while).

OJC techniques have been around a while, and OJC was on last week’s meeting agenda. The challenge for some state jail inspectors is to get more local agencies interested and open to exploring the benefits of OJC.

An OJC decision tree system allows jail staff to quickly assess an inmate’s dangerousness or vulnerability, using objective criteria rather than guesses or gut feelings. The system classifies an inmate into minimum, medium, or maximum security housing, or identifies him/her for special housing (such as protective custody or close oversight for suicide watch). The factors that drive the decision include, for example, any past felony convictions, violent criminal history, prior institutional behavior if a repeat offender, and self-reported information on mental health and suicidal thoughts. (A medical assessment and psychological screening happen soon after initial intake.)
The classification officer can override the results of the assessment, but he or she must document the rationale for doing so. Few overrides should be needed.

The OJC process creates a record of what the agency has done to protect that inmate (and, often, other inmates). If some type of incident were to occur, the documentation shows the agency made its best effort to ensure safety based on information from the detainee, the arresting officer, jail records (if the inmate has been in this jail before), and any other available sources.

Someone who looks tough but has no history of assault could be at risk in maximum security housing. Better to put this person in a medium pod and see if he behaves himself. Let the instrument make the decision.

Goals of OJC in a nutshell: Protect this inmate. Protect other inmates. Protect the agency and county or other jurisdiction by reducing its liability if something happens. Sounds pretty smart, doesn’t it?

Despite what we know about OJC’s effectiveness, there are many jurisdictions that haven’t yet explored or implemented it. So there’s work to do. The jail inspectors are keeping an eye on the OJC ball–and so much else besides. Kudos to them and their good work.

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