6 steps to guarantee correctional officer task completion

Incident reviews and quality assurance can help prevent a problem from becoming a serious incident in a correctional facility


All managers, from a warden to a mid-level sergeant, have to supervise staff and assign tasks they assume (or hope) are completed. Most of the time they are, but on occasion managers find out something they believed was being done as scheduled never happened. Unfortunately, this discovery often comes after an incident, escape or other emergency.

Managers often wonder what they can do to verify staff are following through with their operational responsibilities in order to prevent serious incidents from occurring or lessen their chances of occurring.

Here are six tips that can help:

Deputy Warden of Security Keith Eutsey, left, and Warden Bruce Chatman walk to the execution chamber along rows of barbed wire at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga.
Deputy Warden of Security Keith Eutsey, left, and Warden Bruce Chatman walk to the execution chamber along rows of barbed wire at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

1. Incident reviews can’t be just an exercise

Nothing is more helpful in figuring out what staff did during a serious incident – and why they did it – than a good post-incident review. Unfortunately, good quality incident reviews often do not occur in correctional facilities, whether due to time constraints, lack of understanding of how to complete a review or leadership not understanding how crucial they are.

An incident review should include:

  • The incident report;
  • Any attachments and/or videos;
  • Investigative findings;
  • Staff and inmate witness statements or interviews;
  • Electronic records;
  • Log book entries;
  • Other evidentiary information.

Digging down into why the incident occurred and what staff actions were at each step (even leading up to the incident), can often lead to discoveries of staff being off-post, staff allowing inmates to move beds without permission, staff not checking for jammed cell doors, and other staff actions that could, if acted upon, prevent a similar incident from happening again.

We know that escapes and riots often begin on a small scale with “practice” moves and disturbances. Serious incidents like inmate suicide attempts often have markers and lapses in staff cell checks that, if identified, could prevent a death.

Unless you follow a quality incident review procedure, prioritizing the time to do it and taking apart all facets of the event, you may be checking a box, but you are not substantively finding out if staff did what you expected.

2. Find the good

There is no doubt that finding out about staff inactions or errors help to prevent a comparable incident later, but it is also true that staff do a lot right.

How often do we look for this or let them know they did a great job? Often correctional officers say to me they only hear the negative or only hear from their boss when something goes wrong.

“Finding the good” means that during incident reviews or other quality assurance (QA) activities, leadership intentionally look for ways staff acted as expected or even better than expected, and then take the time to thank or reward them with some praise.

This practice adds balance to the times staff are told they didn’t act as they should have, promoting mutual respect.

And this “find the good” habit by managers also increases the chance that correctional staff will do the right thing in the future, because people are more likely to work hard to perform properly when they feel appreciated by leadership.

3. Know who “reports” to you and who actually should

Reporting structures and organizational charts are important and should be followed; however, there may be times when a lower-level staff member may be just the person you want to hear from.

If a sergeant is the person in charge of unannounced rounds and the documentation of them, and you are the warden, likely the sergeant does not directly report to you. But should you still ask that in some cases he or she report about this to you in meetings so you know what is happening on the ground?

In addition to first-hand information, the side benefit is that this sergeant feels like a vital part of the team and gets some time with the highest-ranking person in the facility.

4. Prove it

When you ask a staff person how an area they are in charge of is progressing – for example, a new front gate procedure for Sunday visitors – and they say it is working or going well, it’s fine to take their word for it, but ask them on occasion how they know and for documentation to prove compliance.

No one who is doing their job and confident in their progress report should have any trouble pulling together the documentation or proof to show it is working. Better to feel confident now than when a visitor brings in drugs after you knew you had a new procedure but it was only partially being followed.

5. Quality assurance is not just the job of the QA staff

Corrections leaders are always busy. Often, QA activities take the back burner when resolving a use-of-force incident or staff disciplinary hearing are priorities. But quality assurance is a part of every leader’s job.

Make it a priority with your staff by requiring random reviews of certain important areas. An example of this might be to examine video from an overnight shift to ensure staff are touring and making checks. Or you could pull 10 incident reports and compare witness statements, nurse reports or video to ensure consistency.

You can also assign managers to do these tasks with you, each with a specialty area they review. Not only do you build the skills of your team, but you may even meet the goal of the next point, which is…

6. Actively find your problems before anyone else does

Ideally you want to identify your challenges through internal processes rather than having an outside party find a problem (especially a serious one) that you weren’t aware of.

Leadership must be active in their reviews of documentation, daily tours and management of staff to ensure surprises do not occur. If you stay in your office and expect to find problems by only analyzing databases with numbers and statistics – though these are important too – you will undoubtedly miss the obvious absence of the segregation unit’s check sheets or need for more staffing in the mental health unit. Prison and jail leadership is on-the-ground work that requires active management.  

Conclusion

Though it may not be possible to feel 100 percent certain that staff are following through, finding ways to stay on top of expectations – whether by doing random reviews, empowering staff or becoming more active in your management of staff – can help. Even more important is to exemplify an open and transparent leadership style that sets high expectations of the work done by your staff, while also praising staff for doing a good job.

Build and support a culture where staff understand the job they do is an important one, and your follow-up on their work is part of the teamwork required to ensure a safe and secure facility.

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