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Why inmate hospital watch is a dangerous shift

If anyone believes hospital watches are not dangerous just ask an officer who has been attacked and injured while on hospital watch to talk with you about their experiences

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Safety behind the walls is paramount at all correctional facilities.


Many correctional officers complain of being bored while working a shift on hospital watch. Being bored is not necessarily a bad thing but staying safe is the key. Officers must stay alert and keep their head on a swivel. At any given moment an officer can fall victim to a surprise attack or a surprise escape attempt.

How many times have we read headlines from news media stating, “Corrections officer severely injured in inmate attack at hospital”? If anyone believes hospital watches are not dangerous just ask an officer who has been attacked and injured while on hospital watch to talk with you about their experience.

Consider these two real-world examples.

Inmate attempts escape through ceiling

Officer Jeff Helms was working a hospital watch alone with a male inmate in custody for armed burglary. The inmate requested to go to the rest room, so Officer Helms uncuffed the inmate’s right arm and right leg shackle from the hospital bed and removed all restraints from the inmate so he could use the restroom.

While in the restroom Officer Helms waited outside with the restroom door closed, the inmate climbed up into the ceiling crawl space and made it three rooms over before he fell through the ceiling onto the floor and was recaptured.

Naked and shackled inmate quickly caught, attacked deputy during hospital escape

Officer Kristi Perry was working a hospital watch alone with a male inmate who was in custody for some very serious charges. The inmate was handcuffed to the bed rail. The inmate unknown to Officer Perry had been working on loosening his bed rail until he could get it freed from the bed.

He requested to use the restroom and when Officer Perry removed one handcuff from the bed rail, the inmate began to beat her with the bedrail until he could run away. Naked and still attached to the bed rail, the inmate ran out of the hospital to the street. Officer Perry had much heart and ran after the inmate fighting to stop him.

Luckily for Officer Perry a local police department had a patrol car at the scene for another incident and the inmate was recaptured 300 yards from the hospital. The inmate was later quoted as saying, “I wanted to kill the officer, but I also needed to get out of there.” Officer Perry suffered from head injuries but recovered and came back to duty after some time off.

Safety considerations for hospital watch

The above incidents really occurred but the names have been changed to protect everyone involved. Officers need to stop and think about what can happen on hospital watch and what we can do to prevent these incidents from occurring. There are many more incidents like these occurring around the country. Let’s discuss what is wrong with the above scenarios.

  • Staff shortages are nationwide; however, we cannot short cut the safety of our officers on hospital watch. Inmates are not behind the razor wire at the hospital and are a short distance from freedom. The above scenarios should have had two officers on watch, not one.
  • In the first scenario, Officer Helms should not have removed all restraints from the inmate. Even if he had left the leg shackles on, it would slow the inmate down, but he probably could still climb. Officer Helms should not have closed the restroom door. No matter how uncomfortable or polite you want to be, we must keep a constant visual on the inmate no matter what he is doing. This is why we always need to have one of the two officers the same sex as the inmate.
  • Inmates are cunning and dangerous so stay alert and do not do anything to give them the advantage. Sometimes even when we do our best we can be surprised, and this is why hospital watch is so dangerous.
  • A risk assessment of each inmate should have been conducted and supervisors should have known what type of inmates they had on hospital watch. No matter what classification an inmate has, we need to always be alert and ready for any threat.

Focus on training

Training officers in this high liability area is paramount to the safety of the officers and the public. Why is it then that I see very little training in this area? Some agencies train for hospital watch, some train very little and others have no official training for hospital watch other than, “Get your weapon, handcuffs, leg shackles, and, radio and get in the ambulance with the inmate and go to the hospital”

Officers need to know the following procedures:

  • Communicate with hospital staff regarding their security contacts and discuss a plan of action prior to the inmate arriving at hospital. Call ahead and plan an entrance to the hospital that is not in view of public if possible and set up a private room. Hospitals are not secure but do the best you can.
  • Clear the hospital room of all loose lamps, telephone and anything that can be used as a weapon by the inmate.
  • Conduct periodic communication checks with hospital security, local law enforcement via radio and your own supervisors.
  • Have several photographs of the inmate with all their general information in case of escape to pass out to local agencies.
  • Teach proper restraint techniques for officers to use and use hands on training to ensure officers are correctly securing an inmate to the hospital bed.
  • Teach proper techniques regarding meal times, restroom and shower times for the inmate and use of restraints during these periods.
  • Very important: Ensure the agency policy is followed regarding doctors requesting the removal of restraints. Some agencies say never remove the restraints, but certain medical procedures may require removal of restraints, so extra security or an alternative restraint may be required.
  • No family members or friends should be allowed to visit the inmate at the hospital. This is not visitation. Approval for a special visit must be approved by the warden of the prison or the jail commander of a jail. No phone calls for the inmate without special approval as mentioned above.

Hospital transport

When transporting an inmate to or from the hospital the inmate’s background should already be known. If the background is not known, get that information before departing. You always want to have a better understanding of who you are dealing with. Have two officers transport the inmate. Before departure search the inmate for contraband and weapons. Check all restraints and double-check to ensure they are working properly.

During the transport keep a close watch on the inmate and watch for any unusual activity. We must keep in mind many inmates are not as sick as they claim to be and use the hospital as an opportunity for escape. You must always be alert because your safety and life depends on it. Do not ever let your guard down because you are then at your weakest point and inmates watch for that.

After arriving at the pre-arranged hospital entrance location, look around the area before removing the inmate from the vehicle or ambulance. Inmates from jails or prisons will call family members of the inmate being transported and say, “They just took Johnny to the hospital” or “Johnny just left in an ambulance.” Inmates have many ways to contact other inmates’ family members, so never think you are the only one who knows about the transport to the hospital.

Stay safe and pre-plan your daily duties. Do not let complacency let you fall into a trap. Some of our duties may seem boring but use your mind to keep you thinking of ways to make your day safer and role play possible scenarios out in your mind to keep you alert and sharp. The goal is to go home at night to our family and friends.

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.