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Can you defend your facility staffing in court?

How long has it been since someone has taken a good look at the way you are utilizing your staff?


No matter if your agency is large or small, the master roster can help you with staffing.

Ross Wolf

There are many things that drain our budget, and overtime is a big one. I know that there are dozens of factors that can affect why we build overtime, some unforeseen, but many are caused by our own staffing patterns.

How long has it been since someone has taken a good look at the way you are utilizing your staff? If it’s been over 12 months, then you’re probably behind and might be wasting valuable hours that could be providing better safety and security and having an impact on your taxpayer’s bottom line.

I bet every jail and prison in the United States have at least one position whose function is either obsolete or could be filled by a non-uniformed or lesser ranked/qualified employee. You further have positions that are simply shift or time specific, which require no relief; once the task is done, that function is not needed until the next day or several days later. Laundry, food service, fire and safety are just a few examples.

And if you’ve read any of my articles, I do admit to referencing litigation often. But that’s the environment we work within, and this will be no different. I encourage you to review all your past litigation or those across the country, which in many cases cite staffing as a contributing factor. Start with in-custody deaths. You will find a pattern of staff-related contributors, such as counts or checks were not done in accordance with standards or policy; staff was somewhere other than where policy directs; mental health observations were not routine, constant or documented; medication was not delivered on time because security staff was unavailable; holding cell monitoring was delayed, etc.

We have all been there. But when we know there is a problem, yet it continues to happen or we overlook it without trying to improve or fix the core issue, deliberate indifference exists. Those specialized law firms I often reference see deliberate indifference as a gift. Their burden of proof becomes simple. The question is not, “Do you care or were you talking about changing the system?” It’s, “Did you know, and did you attempt to fix the issue?” And if the documentation does not exist, we lose every time.

What is a master roster?

I realize there are dozens of variations to a schedule or roster. Some may be working for you, but are you getting everything out of your staff utilization? I bet there are a few extra posts that could be covered if you’re willing to consider implementing both a seven- and five-day master roster.

Whether you are familiar with the system or it’s a new concept, I would refer you to the National Institute of Corrections. While I have utilized and written my agency’s policy on the master roster’s staffing and use, I cannot take the credit for its development. NIC is a great government agency whose sole purpose is to educate and assist jails and prisons. Their staff and leadership are phenomenal. Through technical assistance grants, NIC will come to your facility and evaluate operational systems, which includes conducting a staffing analysis. Training is a component of the assistance for implementation. It’s a win any way you spell it out.

No matter if your agency is large or small, the master roster can help you with staffing. The master roster is a living document that must be adjusted every time a critical post is vacated through promotion, bidding out for a different post, resignation, termination, etc.

To establish your roster, you first must establish what your most critical posts are. In other words, if only one employee showed up for work, where would you put them? In most instances that would be your main control room. I would justify that because somebody must open the doors to let external help into the building. You then work from there to establish 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., which is the most critical post to maintain your mission.

Understand this is an emergency or critical situation (like a pandemic), not an ideal method of operations. One person may have to work more than one post at any given time. The theory is you man all your critical posts first, then man the others in order of importance. You shut them down in the same manner. For example, if you have 20 total positions and only 18 on shift, and your no-show employees are assigned to your number 1 and 2 critical posts, your action is to shut down posts 20 and 19 and move them into posts 1 and 2 to ensure your identified most critical and often most liable posts are covered. This will probably keep you out of the courtroom at some point.

I have to keep emphasizing that you are working an emergency here, not covering all posts, so use the mindset that in the worst-case scenario, how do I operate for one hour until help can get here? You may have three officers assigned to medical, but only one is identified as critical. You probably need all three, but in an emergency, can’t you survive just one hour or one day with only that one staff member?

This allows you to shut down and move the other two into critical areas to ensure mission success. Is it better to document your justification for reduction in one area and provide minimal services in other critical areas? It absolutely is because you knew there was a problem and you acted. This action shows your due diligence. It also shows there is no deliberate indifference because you saw a problem and had a plan in place to address the problem.

According to what I have witnessed over the last 35-plus years, your critical posting should run approximately one-third of your posts.

Implementing the master roster system

I fully understand that staff doesn’t like change, but they do enjoy money, which is of course why they work at our facilities. And if the master roster saves you money, then you can – and should – reinvest in your product. While I know there are thousands of new technologies that would be helpful if you had the extra money, the single greatest resource you have and need is your people. Some will tell you they love their jobs, but I have not found one who was willing to work for free. Thinking outside the box, what would the available money have been for raises if you had cut your overtime and litigation fees and settlements in half?

So, how do we get more money in their pockets? Well, it’s not just about imposing a new staffing system from the top down. First and foremost, it’s about education and buy-in at the mid-level supervisors’ rank. They control morale, retention and the attitudes of their shifts. If they can’t or won’t evolve and take ownership, some tough joint decisions must be had with them. Training or education is a powerful tool; people follow what they understand.

But what can make the master roster unpopular? Let’s begin with the fact it partially takes the good-ole-boy system out of play. It forces the mid-level supervisors to man a roster how the agency wants and not them. Some of those mid-level managers, when reviewed, can be directly responsible for turnover and limiting employee development.

While that is a blanket statement, I am not saying that it’s the case everywhere. Our mid-level managers are the backbone of our facilities, but some also can be our weaknesses. You know and have addressed their developed independent style of management. You have seen examples where their style or systems weren’t identical to policy or the overall mission. The good news, however, is that the vast majority will embrace and follow leadership directions.

But buy-in at this level certainly isn’t the only key to implementation success; the administration’s willingness to invest for the long haul is critical because, let’s face it, change is not always pretty. Administrators will have to endure line staff complaining because a roster change was not what they wanted. The workload increased, they had to change days off, they had to learn all areas of the operations, etc. But money over the long haul will improve the career employee’s perspective along with the routine developed over time. Yes, administrators must listen to their employees, but the other sharp edge of the sword is the customer base who pays the bills with tax dollars. I believe it was Einstein who said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

What the master roster looks like

The roster is very simple to draft; you work off of a seven-day workweek for 95% of your posts. With that in mind, your roster is divided into seven cell sections where each post within that cell has specific assigned days off that don’t change. The days off are assigned to the post/position, not the employee. You know every day which officer is assigned to which post as well as where the relief position assigned to that post is working. Those relief positions are assigned positions within the master roster just like every critical or shutdown post. They too fit within a seven-day cell with fixed assigned days off.

[Need a visual representation? Download a sample roster by David Parker by completing the “Get Access to this Corrections1 Resource” box on this page!]

The roster further has employees assigned to positions to cover employees who are sick, at training or on annual vacation. The unfortunate part of the roster is that supervisors have to do what they are entrusted and paid to do: supervise employees. Without the mid-level supervisors stepping up and updating their roster daily, which means moving people from non-critical posts into vacant critical posts, it will not take long for trouble to follow.

I could draft another 20 pages on the benefits and operations of this system, but my intent is simply to help provide you with a tool to start a review. In case you’re a visual learner like myself, I’ve provided generic examples of a master roster, post chart and priority posting that can be downloaded below. The post chart helps determine how many and what type of employees are needed to man the facility while the priority posting helps determine which post you should fill first based on need. You then use both to develop the master roster. I’ve included a 12-hour shift example, but it can be converted to an eight-hour with little effort.

I would also be happy to send you a few mocked-up rosters to play with. As with my prior offer in a past article, Corrections1 has my contact information. I have several 40-hour and 48-hour rosters with priority posting guidelines built. I would share both five and seven days. These are just examples you could reference when creating your own. The 40-hour is for five days on two off, eight hours a week with relief factors. The 48-hour is for four days on three off, working 12-hour shifts with relief factors. The five-day posts are for positions that do not require relief. These are all with fixed posts and fixed days off built in as any roster you build should. Any variation takes away from the roster’s integrity.

We must share our knowledge because expectations have been elevated. But more importantly, we all got into this profession because we believe everyone should do the right thing for the right reasons. We also simply don’t have the time to waste on developing systems that are already proven. I promise you that those specialized firms in your area are monitoring, and when they meet you at the courthouse after a future incident, your staffing will be reviewed. Is it measurable and can you and your attorneys articulate and defend your system? Proactive always trumps reactive.

Download a sample post chart, priority posting chart and master roster by completing the “Get Access to this Corrections1 Resource” box on this page!

David B. Parker began his law enforcement career as a deputy with the Woods County Sheriff’s Office in Alva, Oklahoma, while attending college. After graduating from Northwestern Oklahoma State University, he accepted a position with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Entering as a correctional officer, he was promoted through the ranks as an investigator, deputy warden, divisional supervisor of construction and maintenance, warden, deputy director and retiring as director of Division II. After retiring he accepted the position of jail administrator for the Tulsa County Jail located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a 1,900-bed facility.

Throughout his career, he never received an ACA accreditation score less than 100%, either at a prison or jail. He served as a committee chair for Southern States Corrections Association and was a member of the National Institute of Corrections Large Jail Network think tank. He currently provides consultation as a detention expert.