Design team professionals understand that existing facilities and newly designed operations will be looking for help to address the myriad of issues surrounding mitigation of exposures and infections from viruses such as the COVID-19 pandemic.  These issues have clearly found their way to the forefront of many collective concerns as our communities, our institutions and our citizens cannot escape COVID-19’s reach.  The emergent decisions to release inmates from secure physical custody is a solemn reminder for us all that this pandemic has a limitless reach into our lives.

Jail Operations in the Spotlight

Correctional facility operations can get lost within the layers and complexities that comprise the criminal justice system.  This critically important component of the justice system is often misunderstood and unappreciated.  Even the physical location of a jail facility can be a mystery to the average citizen – until they become directly impacted as we are seeing today resulting from the COVID-19 Viral Pandemic. Jails and their operations are now part of the first-person narrative that comprises direct societal impacts due to decisions to release inmates from secure physical custody. Jail facility design and operation has never been called upon to address the kinds of mitigation efforts needed to minimize the transmissibility of this most recent pandemic – and perhaps all future viral strains of this type.

We at L.R. Kimball have decades of experience in the design and development of these critically important and secure jail facilities.  Our design professionals are some of the best in the nation and their efforts are augmented by a former full-time facility operator as a ready resource of practical applications related to plan development and implementation.  This collaborative effort affords each client a thoroughly vetted plan to include all operational considerations…to include those like this recent pandemic crisis.

The Impact on our Communities

The world-wide reach of this virus has impacted everyone.  Historically, there are not many conditions or events that have had such a polarizing global impact as this virus has upon us all.  Our national narrative of “we are all in this together…” is accurate indeed but we cannot forget that this includes the inmate populations of our nation’s jails and prisons.  By the very design of jails or prisons, inmates possess minimal ability to control their conditions of confinement – such as their location, environment, and proximity to other inmates.  As a result, jails and prisons are faced with the inescapable reality of what this pandemic has caused in many regions of our country – the premature release of inmates from secure physical custody back into our communities.  The reasons for these early releases are based upon the same rational for which the balance of the country has reacted and complied: social distancing, heightened hygiene requirements, limiting movement into and through the community, and staying “home” if suffering the symptoms of this virus.

Correctional Facilities Can Mitigate Issues Related to Pandemics

Whether your jail is in current operations, or you’re planning a new facility, there are steps you can take to help mitigate viral diseases from spreading by using what already exists in the Direct Supervision Management Model.

In my operational experience history, I had to employ immediate and extremely stringent measures to mitigate the outbreak of tuberculosis within a jail operation of more than 1,100 inmates.  The existing Medical Services Unit had the prescribed number of “negative airflow” cells in the Secure Medical Housing area for our operation which was a total of two cells.  Because our facility was a Direct Supervision Design and Management Model, the steps we took were effective to mitigate the spread of tuberculosis, and are still effective for pandemics like COVID-19:

  • Kept inmates separated as much as practical
  • Limited time out of cells
  • Controlled seating patterns for food service
  • Suspended all programming or services that bring volunteers and other support staff into the jail
  • Perhaps most importantly, we kept inmates on their assigned housing units with only critical movements authorized

Principles of Direct Supervision – Aid to Mitigation

Direct Supervision or more specifically – Podular Direct Supervision, is the premiere standard for operating correctional and detention facilities of all types.  It stands alone as the proven leader in safe, secure and effective facility control for managing the secure physical custody of inmates and other detainees.  During its development, nine principles were established as benchmarks for operational excellence.   Operators and advocates of this operational philosophy are completely aware of these principles and the overarching benefits of this management model.  For those not as immediately familiar with these principles which were developed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the 1970’s, they are:

  1. Effective Control* – without it, inmates are in control of each other resulting in severe non-compliance
  2. Effective Supervision –proactively and effectively controls inmate behavior
  3. Competent Staff – staff skilled at managing inmate behavior, not simply their physical containment
  4. Staff & Inmate Safety** – the actual and perceived levels of safety to dispel the danger and fear connotation
  5. Manageable & Costs Effective Operations – the best control of operational costs by managing inmate behavior not by reacting after the fact to the consequences of inmate neglect
  6. Effective Communications – officers in direct sight and sound contact can better communicate with inmates, other staff members, and management
  7. Classifications & Operations – integral to operations every day to ensure who and what you are dealing; an accurate assessment of risk presented by each inmate
  8. Just & Fair Decisions – creating a realistic approach to treatment and fair assessments as to behavior and any sanctions; exerting positive controls that are consistently fair
  9. Ownership of Operations – empowerment of staff at every level to take responsibility for operating the jail facility; allowing staff to participate in decision making by giving them the opportunity

This is a well-researched and proven set of principles that drive professional facility designs and management operational plans.  What can be easily missed however, is the inherent aid to contagion mitigation efforts that exist within these principles, as well as the design and operational philosophy.  Realities exist within this comprehensive list that can assist operators as they work to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

These are:

Effective Control*

At its core, effective direct control of inmates begins with positioning trained and competent staff inside housing units to manage, direct and control all behavior.  What better way to ensure that enhanced hygiene practices are actual practices than to observe inmates directly in real time with no gaps in visual contact?   The experts explain that a major component to minimizing the spread of this or any contagion is to wash our hands thoroughly and often.  The experts also direct that “social distancing” be employed with the metric of staying 6 feet away from others.  This may seem insurmountable in a jail setting but given sufficient space and with some adjustments to cell assignments and seating in common areas such as day rooms, exercise areas and meal consumption, it’s possible to make this distancing happen.  By its very design, Direct Supervision absolutely minimizes inmate movement within a facility and, thereby, the problems associated with the required separation.  It must be addressed that overcrowded facilities or those that utilize “double bunking” with two inmates in one single cell, will find it next to impossible to achieve this distancing recommendation and hence contribute to the problem.

All services including programming travel to the housing units, should minimize the circulation of other inmates into and out of a variety of housing units.  Direct Supervision housing units in effect have been described as jails within a jail.  That is born from not needing to incessantly move inmates as with other more antiquated and rudimentary philosophies of facility operation.  This includes the operational necessity of providing medical services, testing and the dispensing of medications.  Of course, vigilance on hygiene and decontamination will remain a necessary for all staff, supplies and equipment required to enter the housing units. But this command and control function is much more easily managed than being reliant upon the often-non-compliant actions of inmates.

Staff & Inmate Safety**

With the Direct Supervision designed facility, movement is kept at an absolute minimum.  Additionally, with an officer in direct line of sight and sound with the inmates in the housing units, effective monitoring of activities, physical positioning and rule compliance of inmates can effectively reduce the spread of viruses.  This keeps both the inmate population and the jail staff much safer during daily operations.  Of course, completely eliminating the transmission of a highly contagious virus is impossible in a jail environment just as it is the community at large.  But there is a decided advantage for mitigation in the Direct Supervision Model.

Jail facilities exist and operate for very concrete reasons.  People are held in custody awaiting court proceedings or “as SENTENCED punishment, not FOR punishment.”  There is a duty to protect inmates and staff alike.  The mission statements of these facilities do not include any provisions for punishment or indifference to everyone’s safety. Professionally run Direct Supervision jails continue to function ensuring that no disease exposure potential is left unaddressed.  An efficiently operating Direct Supervision Jail is part of the solution for dealing with viral transmissions.

Additional Mitigation Efforts

While this article primarily highlights how the operational philosophies of the Direct Supervision Model can mitigate the outbreak of diseases, other mitigation efforts outlined by Community Health Care Organizations should be employed and staff must remain vigilant about compliance such as – the utilization of Personal Protection Equipment.  For existing jail facilities, there are also design and retro-fit options that can be employed to assist in the overall mitigation efforts.

In a period where tremendous pressure exists to continue to operate safely during a pandemic, I believe that Direct Supervision Facilities when coupled with other best practices e.g.; (enhanced hygiene efforts, quarantine by limiting movement, closer medical testing and screening) creates an advantage towards the solution. This may not be the whole solution, but it’s part of a larger remedy to address this viral crisis and in my qualified opinion I believe it’s a much better solution than a mass release of inmates into society.

In some areas of our country we are now witnessing these large-scale releases of inmates back in to our communities.  Additionally, by edict, there is less law enforcement presence in communities as police have been directed to respond to critical calls for service while delivering only minimal preventative deterrent patrol coverage.  The convergence of these two realities is having devastating, but predictable results.  Upon release, many inmates are re-offending and victimizing citizens who are injured and suffer as a result of the perpetration of many egregious and horrifying criminal acts.  In my estimation – this is not a solution.  By contrast, it may very well appear as a systemic panicked response to an inescapable reality that systems may not have been adequately prepared to meet the challenges that this virial pandemic created.  People are incarcerated in the secure physical custody of a jail for a reason.  They are ordered there at the direction of judicial decisions and other legal processes.  Any premature, untimely and unauthorized release by actions other than Court Orders is inappropriate and places our communities at risk.

We can do a better job of preparing.  A large component of that preparation is the Direct Supervision model with its intrinsic realities of operation that help to be prepared for and mitigate pandemic related concerns.

As additional resources, the following two links provide greater levels of detailed explanations on these expanded efforts.

By: David McRoberts, CPP
Security & Operations Specialist
L.R. Kimball