Opinion: Why direct supervision is needed in jails

Indirect supervision is not safer than direct supervision for officers. However, direct supervision is most certainly safer for inmates


By Sergeant Barbara Mattes

Any type of law enforcement work is inherently dangerous. Corrections officers should always take steps to keep themselves safe but we also need to consider the safety of those they control and protect.

Here are some key safety considerations offered by direct supervision. Share your opinion in the comment box below.  

The strong are prevented from preying on the weak

There are fewer assaults and abuses from stronger inmates preying on weaker inmates with an officer present. In a direct supervision facility, the officer prevents more assaults and abusive behavior from inmates. There will be assaults that occur regardless of the presence of the officer, but they will be fewer. With indirect supervision, the response will always be reactive rather than prevention. There will never be a prevented assault.

Lives are saved

Regardless of the inmate’s crime, we have a duty to serve and protect. Corrections officers serve their communities by keeping inmates inside the wall. But, there is also a commitment to protect those same inmates from each other or from simply dying from an overdose while in our custody.

With an officer present, inmate medical emergencies are addressed more quickly. This may be the time needed to keep an inmate alive. Potential suicides are stopped before they happen because a trained officer can recognize the signs of depression or just “off” behavior. Indirect supervision might have a “perception” of safety for the officer, but it will result in slower medical attention or referral to mental health professionals for the inmates under their authority. Direct supervision saves lives.

Direct supervision is harder but safer

The direct supervision officer’s work is most certainly more complicated. A well-trained direct supervision officer can control a non-compliant segment of society with nothing but their ability to speak and think. In any type of correctional facility, there will always be assaults on staff. This is something all corrections officers must deal with (not accept) simply due to the segment of society we deal with. However, with direct supervision, those assaults are fewer because of prevention and communication.

The perception is not reality

Indirect supervision will allow more contraband than direct supervision. An example of this is inmates having more time to make weapons and other contraband like “hooch” because an officer is rarely present. Weapons are most often used against other inmates and “hooch” makes inmates even less able to control. Both will make inmates, in those units, feel unsafe and want to get out. The quickest way to get out is to assault staff.

Direct supervision officers routinely search their units. This is usually done more than once a day simply because it is expected that inmates are less likely to make contraband or if they do it is often found. Contraband not made or when found makes both the officer and the inmates safer.

Indirect supervision may seem safer on paper but it is not. Corrections is a hard, complicated and dangerous job, there is no way to avoid that fact, but we can mitigate the dangers with direct supervision. Direct supervision is safer than indirect supervision because the officer is in control, not the inmates.

Corrections1 readers respond

  • Direct supervision is awful for the mental health of the officers working in that tier. It creates an environment where an officer is left alone in a tier with only inmates. Yes, we may have a control officer watching cameras but they are also watching the rest of the jail as well. Can you imagine an eight-hour shift when the only break from inmates you get is when you take your 45-min break? Well, that is the reality in the facility I work in. We are alone with up to 60 criminals for almost the entirety of our shift. I will never believe that this is safer. It may be for the inmates but not us. It's time to start caring more for officers and our health and mental state. It seems as if all changes are for the safety and betterment of the criminal element. And I believe direct supervision is a huge reason for the disgruntled CO and at least in my facility cause for the insane amount of overtime. 
  • My experience is that either direct or indirect is workable, but I prefer direct supervision in most cases for the reasons discussed by Sergeant Mattes and others. It is obvious that there are certain inmate populations that are too dangerous for direct supervision to be utilized unless the inmates are adequately restrained and/or in reasonable/manageable numbers consistent with the number of staff available to directly supervise them. Staff safety in any direct supervision setting is certainly of tantamount importance and, when dealing with an appropriately classified inmate population, is possible to a reasonable degree if properly managed/facilitated.

    My preference is a combination of both direct and indirect supervision wherein the officer(s) on the floor providing the direct supervision are being observed by an officer in a secure officer station when he or she is interacting with the inmates. This type of supervision is more dependable for floor officer safety than cameras with monitors located at some remote location, usually as a part of a bank of numerous monitors that one officer is expected to manage frequently in association with other duties. In such a dual supervision setting in which the housing is properly equipped with remotely controlled locking devices from the secure officer's station, the floor officer should not carry on his/her person any security keys that could make he or she a possible target of the inmates housed there.

    If such a dual supervision system is not possible due to staffing issues or physical plant configuration then officers in direct supervision units should always have access to security features such as "off hook" alert on any phones in the area, officer down/body alarms and handheld radios in addition to constant camera monitoring. Obviously, a well-designed, staffed and practiced emergency response system is imperative. Officers who are to work in a direct supervision setting should be required to complete specialized training on how to safely manage inmates in such a setting and how to preemptively recognize situations where their safety may be at risk and subsequently how to respond.
  • In direct supervision, I can promptly get involved on the floor in minutes to handle what I see as aggression on a passive detainee. I can do my own investigation on someone powering another one's actions.

NEXT: Consider direct supervision in your jail


About the author

Barbara Mattes is a sergeant with the Pima County (Arizona) Sheriff’s Department Corrections Bureau. Her career spans 20 years with the department where she has served in many capacities but most recently as the medical and behavioral health supervisor.

Sergeant Mattes is a firearms and general instructor for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. She is also certified by the Arizona Governor’s Office as an anti-human trafficking instructor.

Sergeant Mattes has developed webinars with Justice Clearinghouse and has presented seminars for the Arizona Gang Investigators Association and the National Sheriff’s Association.

What have your experiences been like with direct vs. indirect supervision?

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