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Security accountability: What to do when a key goes missing

One of a shift commander’s worst nightmares is a staff member’s report of a missing key or tool

One of a shift commander’s worst nightmares is a staff member’s report of a missing key or tool. There is no mistaking that sickening feeling as the information is processed — the realization that the integrity of one of the most important security safeguards has been compromised.

Staff complacency, as well as human and mechanical error, is the enemy in security accountability, so the shift commander immediately begins a process to determine just how and where the failure occurred and locate the missing item.

Compliance with key and tool control standards requires an established system, which includes a series of mutually dependent procedures. Regardless of the type of system, whether the tried and true methods used for years, or modern electronic technology, the associated policies and training are critical, with staff understanding their responsibilities, and that short cuts to controlling keys and tools are never an option.

Accountability is the test, regardless of the type of system used. Simply put, restricted and non-restricted keys and tools should be identified, inventoried at established times, and there should be a method of knowing, without hesitation, which staff member is in control of which key or tool at any given time.

Shift commanders have the option to order a lock down of the facility and activate a special response team to start the search. However, most prefer trying a few lower level attempts at solving the puzzle. Regardless, however, working backwards, interviewing staff, and looking at existing accountability documents are typically the first steps.

Usually the tighter the system in place, the quicker it is to discover an explanation. Sometimes a staff member may have inadvertently left the facility with the key or tool. Contacting that person is required, with an order to return, account for the item, and write a report. Eventually, corrective action may be justified.

While troublesome, everyone breathes a sigh of relief when the issue is resolved so easily. In other circumstances, the shift commander must continue to determine just how deeply into the facility the lost item may be located, and whether or not it has worked its way into the hands of the inmate population.

During the search for a missing key or tool, normal facility operations are interrupted, and there is a sense of urgency for resolution. Complicating matters may be dealing with the nuisance property or other contraband discovered during the search.

The key or tool may never be found, in which case, a formal internal investigation follows. In the very worst case, the loss of a key may cause the prison warden, jail administrator or sheriff, to order a re-key of the entire facility, a costly and disruptive process.

Regardless of the outcome, results of the investigation should be carefully reviewed, involving another look at policies and procedures. Additional training is typically required, and some staff may be facing disciplinary action. Keys and tools are part of daily operations in any secure facility. When a system to control these items fails, identifying the cause and implementing corrective measures helps preserve the facility’s mission.

Cherrie Greco is a retired correctional administrator and consultant, having provided technical assistance to a number of criminal justice agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, and the states of Colorado, Texas, Florida, Maine, Alabama, Connecticut and Oklahoma on the topics of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Amendment Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. During her career with the Colorado Department of Corrections, she served as Director of Administration, Warden, Legislative Liaison, and Director of Staff Training. In recent years, Greco served as a Senior Consultant for MGT of America and was the Director of Probation for Oklahoma County. She earned a B.A., Ed. from Northwestern Oklahoma State University and an M.A., Ed. from Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. Ms. Greco resides in Oklahoma. She has been a columnist for CORRECTIONSONE since 2011.