The challenges facing jails and prisons in 2021

Correctional leaders should commit themselves and their staff to apply lessons learned from the challenges of 2020 into policies and emergency planning


What do you think will be the biggest challenge for corrections in 2021? Answer our poll here.

Over the last year, jails and prisons across the nation faced unprecedented challenges unseen in our lifetimes. Just because the calendar will turn and the ball will drop (most likely without an in-person audience), it doesn’t mean those challenges are over. Here’s a guide to the biggest issues correctional leaders and officers will face in 2021.

COVID-19

Nothing in the history of American corrections has challenged the operation of our jails and prisons like the coronavirus pandemic.

Correctional leaders and officers will continue to face significant challenges in 2021.
Correctional leaders and officers will continue to face significant challenges in 2021. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Nationally, we have lost hundreds of corrections/detention/custody officers or deputies and other staff members to COVID-19. I personally knew and worked with three of them and my heart goes out to all who were lost, their families and their coworkers. In addition, thousands of jail and prison inmates across the nation succumbed to the coronavirus.

Even with the vaccine currently being distributed, we are not out of harm’s way in our country’s jails and prisons. Priority vaccine distribution is planned for public safety personnel and first responders, which rightfully includes correctional staff and correctional healthcare providers. However, vaccine production and distribution is a logistical challenge that will take time to accomplish.

There is no magic pill here and correctional leaders need to plan to deal with COVID-19 over the long haul. Staff and inmate screening, appropriate testing, the use of personal protective equipment, robust sanitation practices and infection control, and social distancing efforts will be with us for quite some time, possibly well into 2022.

We cannot predict when our court systems will resume normal operations. This will continue to impact jails as cases languish without resolution. In addition, prisons should prepare for an influx of new inmates whenever the criminal justice system returns to normal. It is inevitable that much litigation will come about as a result of the pandemic, much of which will be filed against correctional officials and facilities. Detailed documentation of screening and mitigation efforts, as well as policies enacted or in place during the pandemic, will prove highly valuable in 2021 and beyond.

Finally, recruitment challenges have plagued the correctional profession for many years. The pandemic has further stymied these efforts. Not only have we lost hundreds of brave men and women to the virus, but it is also far less likely that qualified candidates will be beating down the doors of our human resources departments to join our ranks. The only silver lining to this cloud may be that correctional staff finally get the long-deserved recognition for the admirable jobs they do and the daily risks they face. Let’s hope that our legislators and other funding entities are paying attention.

Use of force policies and practices

It is hard to think of a time in the history of public safety where use of force policies and procedures have come under such extreme criticism and scrutiny as over the last year. Many states are enacting legislation that has a direct bearing on law enforcement's use of force and many of these proposed, or already enacted new laws, directly affect use of force in a custodial setting.

Correctional leaders must, at a minimum, review, and if necessary, revise their policies and practices in this high-liability realm. Correctional agencies would be wise to consider enacting policies involving a duty to intercede and report if a staff member witnesses a use of force incident by another staff member that is not in full compliance with agency policy.

De-escalation techniques should be incorporated into policies for situations for when it can be applied. In addition, consideration should include policies regarding spontaneous use of force situations as opposed to planned, or calculated use of force incidents such as cell extractions or responses to larger disturbances such as riots. The use and preservation of fixed or handheld-video footage of all use of force incidents should be part of any policy considerations.

In addition to policy review and revision, the words on paper are fairly meaningless unless all staff know and adhere to the boundaries of policy. Therefore, training in the practical application of force, documentation of use of force incidents and knowledge of agency use of force policy is paramount.

Staff mental wellness

The corrections profession has always been challenging – physically, cognitively and mentally. If we did not recognize that before 2020, the harsh reality is upon us now.

Throughout the past year, the mere act of reporting for work has been one of bravery at all ranks, but especially at the line level. Our jobs are tough enough to begin with. Add to the mix many experiencing the death of a coworker, constant concerns over being infected or carrying the coronavirus home to loved ones, staff shortages due to COVID-19 quarantines, longer hours and anti-criminal justice sentiment being played in the media and it should come as no surprise that correctional officers are more stressed than they have ever been.

In response, we need to implement meaningful, validated, professional and confidential programs to keep staff mentally sound and to provide help and guidance if they are not. We need to acknowledge the fears and frailties of our staff, rather than labeling them broken for having them. At the same time, leaders, administrators and supervisors need to recognize their own mental wellness challenges.

The pandemic has offered us an opportunity to address many of the long-ignored mental wellness challenges within our profession and we will be well served in 2021 and beyond to start dealing with this looming crisis.

Emergency planning and related policy

About 15 years ago, I recall sitting in a south Florida Sheriff’s Office jail conference room as the other command staff members and I were doing our bi-weekly policy review. Our new pandemic emergency response plan and policy was up for review. I recall thinking to myself, “This will never happen here!” Thankfully, I didn’t say it out loud. How wrong was I?

Often, the best policies and emergency plans arise out of necessity. The lessons learned during any type of emergency provide excellent opportunities to review and revise “what we thought might happen” versus “what really did happen and what will work better the next time.”

Over the course of the next year, correctional leaders should commit themselves and their staff to apply their particular lessons learned into policy and emergency planning. I am certain that few agencies had a pandemic plan ready at the start of 2020 and the minority of those who did, had an untested plan.

2020 also taught us that we need to consider different types of emergencies that can impact correctional operations. A few “new” plans and related policies that are worthy of consideration include:

  • Civil unrest/mass arrest plans: Many agencies across the country, some in seemingly remote areas, were taxed with dealing with widespread civil unrest and resulting arrests and bookings. Plans should include emergency processing and housing of these types of arrestees.
  • Severe staffing shortage/emergency staffing plans: Many jails and prisons faced severe staffing shortages due to illnesses, resignations, early retirements, and quarantine protocols. Planning in this regard may include alteration of traditional shift schedules, adjustments to leave time, written agreements with allied agencies as well as the use of reserve officers/deputies and other volunteers.
  • Court shutdown or slowdown plans: As noted previously, many courts were closed, and some remain so while others experienced a “slow down” and could only handle arraignments and initial appearances by inmates/arrestees. Planning in this regard should include alternative methods of conducting court appearances for inmates such as hard-wired video feeds, internet-based video (Zoom, Skype, Teams, etc.) or telephonic appearances. Plans should also consider a lack of “routine” hearings and/or trials due to judicial or jury unavailability. It is worth mentioning that a pandemic is not the only impetus for such a policy. A natural or man-made disaster, a court personnel work stoppage, or simply infrastructure damage are possible causes of such a situation. This area of discussion should also consider alternatives to an attorney or other official visitor access to inmates.

Conclusion

2020 posed the most unique challenges in the history of our profession, yet we got through the year. This is a testament to the professionalism, sacrifice, bravery and commitment by those who toil in our nation’s jails and prisons. Without question, we demonstrated to the country what we have always known – that correctional personnel are some of the finest people on the planet. We learned much and will continue to rise above the challenges that face us in the coming year.

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