Why every correctional facility needs a COOP plan

Continuity of operations and disaster recovery planning were challenging enough for jails and prisons – and then COVID-19 happened


By Richard Gaston and Jim Pingel

Every organization, regardless of what business it is in, needs a continuity of operations (COOP) plan to ensure it can continue to function if a natural or manmade disaster – or a pandemic for that matter – renders its facility and/or infrastructure inoperable, inaccessible and/or uninhabitable. This is especially true for jails, prisons and other facilities where criminal offenders are housed.

The reality is that, sooner or later, an event is going to wreak havoc with the correctional facility’s operations. In some cases, those operations will come to a screeching halt if COOP and disaster recovery plans are not in place.

What is a COOP plan?

A COOP plan is a living document that considers all aspects of operations – including technology and staff – as well as the strategies and tactics that will enable the agency to continue providing its mission-critical services.

A vital element of a COOP plan is a disaster recovery plan that addresses the agency’s information technology assets and is intended to keep them secure and operational.

How to develop a COOP plan

The following are essential tasks for developing a COOP plan:

  • Identify mission-essential functions. These are the functions that enable the organization to perform its overarching mission(s) that cannot be compromised for any reason or length of time.
  • Identify mission-essential positions, and define their roles, responsibilities and work tasks. These are the people who are responsible for performing the agency’s mission-essential functions.
  • Develop a staff succession plan and delegation of authority policies.
  • Identify and assess the systems and equipment needed to conduct each mission-essential task.
  • Conduct a risk and vulnerability assessment to identify hazards and threats that could impact the organization.
  • Develop and adopt crisis communications procedures.
  • Identify and obtain necessary interlocal agreements, mutual aid agreements and memoranda of understanding.
  • Test the plans via tabletop and operational exercises.
  • Develop after-action reports to document the results of each exercise and plan activation.

What is the difference between a COOP plan and an emergency response plan?

It is important to understand the difference between a COOP plan and an emergency response plan.

An emergency response plan is concerned with inmate disturbances, power outages, fires, communications system outages and the like. (While municipal jails generally are unregulated, county and state-level facilities are regulated, and as such their emergency response plans must adhere to a series of state-mandated standards and regulations.)

In contrast, a COOP plan is focused primarily on leadership and management continuity, as well as on ensuring that appropriate staffing remains in place and that the needs of the inmates are well met.

For example, let’s say that circumstances are such that a large percentage of a jail’s correctional officers are unable to arrive at the facility. This is a big problem, because to work in a jail or prison generally requires certain certifications. While it might seem intuitive to temporarily place law enforcement officers in those positions, that’s usually not possible unless the officers are trained and certified in jail or prison operations, whichever is applicable. Usually, they are not.

There are a couple of ways to address this situation. One would be to cross-train law enforcement officers in the jurisdiction where the correctional facility is located – a time-consuming and expensive proposition, but one that is not infeasible. However, it should be noted that such officers, even if they have the requisite training and certifications, nevertheless may be unavailable to support jail operations because they are busy responding to the disaster or emergency impacting the community.

Another more feasible option would be to negotiate an interlocal agreement that would provide a waiver of the certifications during and after extreme events that affect staffing. Regardless of the path chosen, it would be defined by the correctional facility’s COOP plan.

The COVID Game Changer

The last time a public health crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19 occurred was a century ago with the Spanish Flu pandemic. Consequently, very few public-safety agencies and correctional facilities have written pandemic sections into their COOP plans – if they have such plans at all.

We predict that this situation will change dramatically in the coming months and years. Agencies and facilities that do not have COOP plans will create them, and those that do have them will update them with pandemic response plans. It is far better to have such plans but never need them than to be caught without them when a pandemic arrives.

For jails and prisons, a pandemic spawns numerous unique factors that should be addressed in their COOP plans. The following is a partial list:

  • Stockpiles of personal protective equipment (e.g., mask, gloves, face shields, level B suits) for inmates and jail personnel need to be created and replenishments planned, in coordination with emergency-management officials.
  • Intake medical-screening protocols.
  • Inmate medical testing in coordination with the local and/or state health department.
  • Employee medical testing and workers’ compensation issues due to virus exposure.
  • Quarantine of those exposed to the virus or suspected of being ill.
  • Isolation for those diagnosed with a disease.
  • Treatment of inmates, including coordination of in-house clinic facilities and medical staff.
  • Transfer of ill inmates and personnel to hospitals, with an emphasis on security or possible release on bond.
  • Fatality management and coordination with the jurisdiction’s medical examiner.
  • Costs related to inmate care and their impact on the facility’s operating budget.

Let’s consider a situation where a large percentage of a jail or prison’s inmate population needs to be evacuated due to pandemic-related illness so as not to infect the healthy. Where are they going to go? It’s not as if they can be placed on a bus and transported to the closest high-school gymnasium where cots have been set up. Rather, a secure facility has to be identified. An appropriate number of correctional officers must be deployed. How will that occur? Will personnel be brought in from outside the jurisdiction? Will overtime be required of officers from within the jurisdiction? The same considerations apply to medical personnel who will care for the displaced inmates, to kitchen staff members who will feed them, and to maintenance personnel who will keep the temporary facility clean and functional.

All of this – and more – can and should be defined in a COOP plan.

In summary, a COOP plan is a must-have for any jail or prison. And it absolutely should contain a section that defines how a pandemic will be addressed – because the next one might not take a century to arrive.

NEXT: How to prepare for emergencies in your correctional facility ahead of time


About the authors

Richard Gaston is a senior consultant and Jim Pingel is an account manager, for Mission Critical Partners, a mission-critical communications and information technology consulting firm headquartered in State College, Pennsylvania. Contact them at RichardGaston@MissionCriticalPartners.com and JimPingel@MissionCriticalPartners.com.

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