Trending Topics

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

The mass evacuations of several Texas prisons after catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Harvey is a reminder of the necessity of emergency planning


The guard tower at a Texas State prison unit is submerged by water from the flooded Brazos River in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey Friday, Sept. 1, 2017, in Rosharon, Texas

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

By Mandy Johnson

No matter where you live or work, emergencies are inevitable. Whether facing a natural or man-made emergency, your preparedness level will directly impact your recoverability. Preparedness covers an array of critical mission areas.

Jails and prisons – state and federal, public and private – must maintain essential functions in the event of an emergency. The mission of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is “to protect society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure.” During an emergency, the BOP, local jails, and prisons must still carry out the tenets of their respective missions.

In order to effectively operate in the event of an emergency, an agency can and should take some preparedness measures. The Department of Homeland Security’s Presidential Policy Directive 8 aims at strengthening the security and resilience of the United States through systematic preparation for the threats that pose the greatest risk to the security of the nation, including acts of terrorism, cyber-attacks, pandemics and catastrophic natural disasters.

The National Preparedness Goal for this directive describes how a nation can be more secure and resilient by focusing on the following five critical mission areas: Prevention: Necessary to avoid, prevent, or stop a threat or act of terrorism.

  • Protection: Necessary to secure the homeland against both terrorist acts and manmade or natural disasters.
  • Mitigation: Necessary to reduce the loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters.
  • Response: Necessary to save lives, protect property and the environment, and meet basic human needs after an incident has occurred.
  • Recovery: Necessary to assist communities affected by an incident to recover effectively.

FEMA defines success of the National Preparedness Goal is “A secure and resilient Nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk.”

Preparedness planning

There are steps we – as individuals or agencies – can take to protect against, prevent, mitigate, respond to and recover from emergency situations, regardless of the event’s origin. It is crucial that county jails and prisons have an emergency operations plan, also known as a continuity of operations plan or business continuity plan. Incorporating the five mission areas listed above into the emergency response plan can help an agency focus on what can be done in advance to prepare for any number of emergencies.

Let’s consider some ways prisons and jails can conduct emergency preparedness:

  • Prevention
    • Reviewing and updating phone roster often
    • Creating and updating threat and hazard incident response assessments
  • Protection
    • Reinforcing building security
    • Ensuring proper staffing
  • Mitigation
    • Providing emergency preparedness and response training
    • Conducting fire, evacuation, and emergency medical response drills regularly
    • Participating in tabletop exercises and full-scale exercises
  • Response
    • Guaranteeing adequate accessibility to technology (e.g., duplicative means of communication)
    • Having pre-existing mutual aid agreements or memorandums of understanding
  • Recovery
    • Instituting employee assistance programs
    • Creating a Continuity of Operations Plans

Exercises – tabletop or full scale – help agencies informally utilize the incident command system and command post activation. Participants are given an opportunity to evaluate current emergency operations procedures, plans, and capabilities. Exercises also address various areas of concern within a facility: response time, medical necessity, and recovery efforts.

For example, a facility within a flood-prone area should address various aspects of concern if the facility is threatened with a flood. A flood exercise should help prepare a facility to answer such questions as:

  • At what point do we no longer shelter in place?
  • What is our back-up facility if we do need to evacuate?
  • How will we transport the inmates?
  • What measures do we have in place to provide medical care to staff and inmates during an evacuation?
  • If sheltering in place, do we have enough food to sustain ourselves for a period of time?

While a facility may not know what they need in the immediacy of an emergency, exercises bring to light what should be in place. Mutual aid agreements and memorandums of understanding are critical to have in place prior to any emergency. While neighboring agencies might be adversely affected during an earthquake or flood, an exercise helps executives and policymakers think beyond their own resources and hopefully put into effect procedures to ensure continuity of operations.

According to FEMA, the incident command system stipulates that the following objectives (known as L.I.P. objectives) should be established when responding to any incident:

  • Life safety;
  • Incident stabilization;
  • Property preservation.

Prisons and jails must make efforts to address these objectives prior to any emergency.

Additional preparedness measures aimed at addressing the L.I.P. objectives can include, but are not limited to:

  • Life safety: Ensuring employee work equipment is checked regularly, certifying that medical equipment is operating properly and the facility is staffed with adequate supplies, providing relevant training (e.g., how to perform CPR, how to use an automated external defibrillator), assigning assistants to employees or inmates with special needs requirements, maintaining clear exit paths and evacuation directions.
  • Incident stabilization: Creating protocols that reflect all-hazard responses, entering into mutual aid agreements, partnering with local, state, federal agencies, and private sector entities.
  • Property preservation: Knowing when to and performing maintenance checks, testing fire sprinkler systems, hardening entrances to mitigate various threats.


Preparedness is enhanced by addressing the various aspects of L.I.P. prior to an emergency, which can greatly enhance an agency’s resiliency. Instituting prevention, protection, and mitigation efforts can directly affect the response and recovery ventures.

About the Author
Mandy Johnson has been in law enforcement for over nine years as a crime and intelligence analyst. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and criminal justice, a master’s degree in criminal justice and a certificate in crime and intelligence analysis. She has worked at police departments, sheriff’s offices, the California Department of Justice and the California State Threat Assessment Center (a federally recognized fusion center). She has also worked as a criminal justice college instructor. Her areas of expertise are prison and criminal street gangs and human trafficking.