Whether corrections officers are dealing with a violent inmate, trying to quell a riot, or compensating for a guard shortage, lockdowns are sometimes necessary to get dangerous situations under control. However, despite their purpose, extended lockdowns can create unsafe environments for officers and inmates alike.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, facilities faced understaffing and the consequences of overworked officers. The virus has only exacerbated such problems in recent years.
As such, there’s an ongoing snowball effect inside correctional facilities:
- Understaffed facilities are dealing with frequent lockdowns, whether because of inmate actions, positive COVID tests, general staffing shortages, or avoidable mistakes.
- Frequent lockdowns are creating an unsafe situation for exhausted and overworked officers, pushing them to seek employment elsewhere.
- When officers leave an already understaffed facility, the frequent lockdowns continue as units struggle to fill vacancies for one of the most dangerous jobs in America.
While most lockdowns are unpredictable and to some extent unavoidable, there still are avoidable lockdowns that stem from simple staff errors, process breakdowns, and other mistakes that can’t be directly attributed to inmate actions.
When faced with short staffing and the prospect of increasingly dangerous situations, it’s critical to minimize the mistakes that can lead to avoidable lockdowns. After all, you can’t fill your staff with experienced officers overnight, you can’t control how many or what type of offenders end up inside your walls, and COVID-induced lockdowns could be a possibility for years.
So, let’s take a look at what avoidable lockdowns are, how they can create a domino effect inside your facility, and how you can get them under control.
What are avoidable lockdowns?
If correctional facility lockdowns are inevitable, how can some of them be avoidable? Such lockdowns often happen because somebody made a mistake: A key was lost, a gate was left open, or a radio was missing. These things boil down to process breakdowns, some of which are more common during staffing shortages, but are still controllable.
With proper audit trails and enforcement, you could avoid such a lockdown entirely.
Consider how you manage your keys, weapons, restraints, and other operation-critical assets. These are things you definitely wouldn’t want to fall into inmates’ hands. Yet such items do tend to go missing at facilities that don’t maintain accurate access logs or ensure assets are returned in a timely fashion. When somebody does finally realize a key is missing, you’ll deal with a lengthy lockdown while your short-handed staff searches for it. With proper audit trails and enforcement, you could avoid such a lockdown entirely.
What are the consequences?
Consider the lost-key scenario in the previous section. Imagine that the lockdown happens a matter of days after another lockdown caused by a positive COVID test and a general officer shortage. That’s probably not too hard to imagine since it’s likely happened to your facility in recent years.
Your inmates have been unable to attend classes, therapy sessions, or visitations for weeks, and now they’re restricted to their cells yet again. Who knows how long this lockdown could last while your short-handed staff searches for the key? Inmates will be restless and prone to lashing out at officers and other inmates, creating a dangerous situation as the lockdowns continue.
This avoidable lockdown contributes to the snowball effect that’s pushing correctional staffing issues to the brink.
How can you avoid them?
Prioritize keeping control of keys and assets by training staff to complete access logs accurately every time and to return items to secure storage when they’re no longer needed.
You might approach this problem with paper logs or by assigning key management duties to a specific officer (if you haven’t already), but even those steps have pitfalls. Paper logs waste time and often leave supervisors with an incomplete or inaccurate access history. Meanwhile, a key control officer isn’t always available and frequently has other job duties, creating a situation where relaxed key access practices slip in.
Consider using an electronic key and asset management system that automatically tracks every time an item is taken from the system. Doing so will help ensure items are accounted for and promptly returned when they’re not needed. Such a system can make performing shift audits a breeze, allowing officers to quickly get to their posts and perform their duties.
While many lockdown scenarios are inevitable, it’s important to take steps to prevent avoidable mistakes like lost keys or radios. If you don’t, they could snowball and stir trouble with inmates, push guards out the door, and create an unsafe facility.