9 documentation tips for correctional officers
Documentation is an essential part of your duty and responsibilities as a correctional officer – check if your report-writing skills are up to scratch
Good documentation may be the one thing that saves you in the event of a lawsuit. With the number of incidents and interactions you have each day, years down the road it may be virtually impossible to recall the details of a particular event. Whether it is a medical event, use of force, unusual circumstance or simply just an effort made to reasonably accommodate an inmate request, proper documentation is key.
As a mandatory reporter, documentation is also an essential part of your job duties and responsibilities. It not only represents who you are as a professional, but also reflects your agency and the profession. It is critical to know your facility’s documentation policies, and make quality documentation a priority. It provides a detailed account of the decisions and actions you made, and helps justify and articulate those decisions and actions. Remember, if you did not document it, it did not happen!
Here are some documentation best practices:
1. Paint the picture. Tell the whole story – who, what, when, where, why and how. As you paint the picture in your documentation, remember your audience of judges, jury members, attorneys and the public.
2. Stay objective. Only document the facts, and don’t allow emotion to come out in your reports. Avoid opinions and, if you use them, label them as such.
3. Be concise. Tell the whole story, but keep your report brief and to the point. Provide pertinent and relevant information only. This helps keep your report objective.
4. Avoid slang and jargon. This goes hand in hand with knowing your audience. For example:
- Instead of “cuffs” use “handcuffs”
- Instead of “wasted” use “intoxicated”
- Instead of “racked back” use “returned to their cell”
- Instead of “patted down” use “conducted a pat search.”
5. In the beginning of your report, identify the date, the approximate time, the location and the person talking. The opening of the report should include a brief synopsis of who is talking, and what the report is about. Your timeframes should be in approximate time only, as your watch may have said something different than someone else’s.
6. Write your report in first person, using an active voice and past tense. For example, write “I applied handcuffs on inmate Anderson and he began to turn toward me,” not “Anderson then turns toward me as I’m applying cuffs.”
7. Write your report in chronological order, identifying all persons involved, all actions taken and include all follow-up actions. Don’t leave your audience guessing. For example, “I applied handcuffs on inmate Anderson and he began to turn toward me. I told inmate Anderson to turn and face the wall in front of him until instructed to move, and he complied,” or “I conducted a pat search on inmate Smith, and nothing was found.”
8. After you finish writing your report, proofread it, then have someone else proofread it. Another set of eyes may find spelling or grammatical errors you missed, or give suggestions for how something may be re-worded. Your report is your report, an accurate record of your actions; however, how it reads may be interpreted differently by someone else.
9. Make documentation a habit, and document everything. Document:
- Use of force;
- Medical events;
- Unusual behavior or circumstances;
- Threats toward yourself or others;
- Reasonable actions and efforts made to accommodate.
Documenting use of force
When necessary, force is used to safely and effectively control certain situations. How we document and articulate the lawful force we used is critical.
Hudson v. McMillian is a case that speaks to excessive force constituting cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. The five-pronged Hudson test the courts use (also known as PANAM) to evaluate these cases is still critical to include in any use of force, regardless if convicted or pre-trial. The test helps the courts determine whether or not your actions were reasonable, necessary and out of good faith; or malicious, unreasonable and unnecessary:
P – Perceived threat by correctional officers
A – Any and all efforts to deescalate
N – Need for the application of force
A – Amount of force that was used
M – Medical issues, and extent of any injuries.
The supervisor who reviews your report is responsible for ensuring all five elements are clearly identified in your report:
- Perceived threats: Identify the observable situational factors; primarily the level of resistance and the immediate threat.
- Attempts to de-escalate: Articulate all efforts exhausted to try to control the situation without force (verbal commands), as well as identifying how no reasonably effective alternatives appeared to exist.
- Need for the use of force: Identify why you did what you did, when you did it, how long you did it and how your decision for using force was based on the totality of circumstances. Outline the reason for the force option used.
- Amount of force used: Articulate the force option you used and how you used it. It should be out of good faith and consistent with the training you have received at your agency.
- Medical: Identify the resolution of the incident in terms of any injuries that occurred to both staff and the inmate, and the medical aid that was provided. Regardless of any observable injuries following the use of force, medical staff should evaluate the inmate.
In order for your force to be lawful, it must be objectively reasonable under the totality of circumstances.
The more you capture the totality of the circumstance, the less likely you are to be challenged in a court of law. Your report should convince practically any jury that your actions were objectively reasonable under the totality of circumstances. Again, if you didn’t document it, it did not happen.