Opinion: Why we need to put the bars back in jails

A recent attack on a North Carolina detention officer highlights the dangers associated with direct supervision housing

The recent story of the brutal attack on a North Carolina detention officer has highlighted what I consider to be one of the worst ideas in corrections: direct supervision housing. To be specific, I am referring to the style that puts the detention officer physically within a housing unit, with no physical barrier to separate them from the inmates – exactly the kind of unit that Officer Sheldon Kaminsky was working when he was viciously battered by an inmate.

[MORE: Video released showing attack that left N.C. detention officer on ventilator]

I will make the case that the possibility of these kinds of assaults happening would be minimized in a linear-style jail. As my experience has been in, and this situation transpired in a county jail, I will be speaking of that system. Although the dynamic applies, I will not be concerning myself with prisons.

An inmate at the Guilford County Dentention Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, is restrained following an assault on a 72-year-old detention officer.
An inmate at the Guilford County Dentention Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, is restrained following an assault on a 72-year-old detention officer. (Fox 8)

Inmate welfare does not require direct supervision

While the proponents of direct supervision tout its upside – being able to respond quickly to inmate needs while also promoting inmate safety – I argue that any operational approach that puts officers in danger has no upside. The bottom line is that direct supervision puts the welfare of inmates above that of staff. 

Inmate welfare is driven more by the caliber and training of staff than by physical set-up. Caring, professional staff in a linear jail will ensure inmate welfare, but without exposing staff to the inherent dangers of direct supervision.

In both models you are still going to have inmate drama, ranging from gossip to assaults; it’s a fact of jail life. But in a linear facility, these problems are going to be behind bars, glass, or something else – where I argue they belong. And with electronic surveillance capabilities these days, as well as regular physical rounding through housing areas, these issues can be kept to a minimum.

Additionally, when inmate disturbances occur in a linear cellblock, you have the luxury of not going in until you have amassed adequate staff – a luxury you would not have with an officer already trapped in a direct supervision pod.

other benefits

Those who claim more pragmatic reasons for direct supervision, such as cost efficiency, confuse me. In both facilities where we ran supervision, the combined officer to inmate ratio averaged around 1 to 50. In one of them, we also had linear, where the ratio could be as high as 1 to 150. Now, I’m no mathematician, but linear sure seems much more cost-efficient. And guess what? In linear, we didn’t have any inmates pushing laundry carts out of the way and assaulting officers!

I can also add two very practical benefits of linear style as it relates to staff, with officer safety coming in first and foremost. When an officer is physically exposed to inmates on a consistent basis, the chances of assault are higher. This is not rocket science. Although the majority of inmates are not a physical threat to staff, that doesn’t alter the fact that some are. Just like many crimes are crimes of opportunity, the same could be applied to officer assaults. Why present the opportunity by placing staff right in the “crosshairs” of an inmate with ill intent?

Staffing is also likely to improve under a linear supervision model. A safer, less stressed staff will call out of work less frequently, and the job will be more attractive to potential applicants. When you are dealing with inmates for eight, 10, 12 hours, or more, you need time to decompress during the shift. Linear-style afforded this opportunity as you could walk away from the cellblock, unlike direct supervision. And while I grant that the percentage of “problem” inmates is relatively small, when you’re sitting in there, all it takes is a few (or one!) to make for a long day. Even a well-run pod, with rule-abiding inmates, has its accompanying stress.

We have to get our priorities straight

We have to get our priorities straight: Are we a jail or not? Direct supervision, at least in its broad application, needs to go away. Detention staff deserve to be as safe as possible. Detention pods and cell blocks are where detainees live, not where these brave people should have to spend their shift.

NEXT: What’s the difference between direct and indirect supervision?

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