Overcrowded Prisons and Officer Safety
Prison overcrowding poses not only great risk to inmates, but also increased risk to the correctional officers who work in overcrowded prisons. Much is written in the media about how overcrowding affects the prison inmate population; however; frequently, however, the plight of the officers is underreported.
Based on my experience, I have found that overcrowded prisons (including jails) are dangerous to correctional officers for the following reasons:
Inmate classification conducted by officer staff and medical/mental health staff in overcrowded prisons may not be as thorough as it should be in order to safely house incoming inmates.
Due to additional work for the classification unit, inmates who, for example, have suicide ideation may be overlooked and inmates with serious medical issues may not be examined as closely as they should. Inmates who are on essential medications may not get their required medication on time.
Inmates who should not be housed together may be housed together. Inmates who are violence prone or have a history of violence towards officers may not be properly housed. Inmates who are escape risks may not be properly housed, etc.
Properly classifying incoming inmates is essential to inmate safety and officer safety. Correctional officers are at greater risk when inmate classification fails to properly house certain inmates. Overcrowding impacts classification, which impacts officer safety.
Heath care and mental heath care
Inmates in prisons that are overcrowded do not have the same access to health care or mental heath care as do inmates in prisons that are not overcrowded. It is important to ensure that the medical service provider to inmate ratio is at an acceptable level.
Of special concern are inmates who may be suicidal and in need of increased supervision. If an inmate attempts or commits suicide and the investigation shows that proper precautions were not taken and overcrowding may have been responsible, the officers may be held responsible in civil court where deliberate indifference can be shown. Officer career safety is important as well as officer physical safety.
Inmates in prisons that are overcrowded may not have access to the telephone; not having that access causes inmate tensions to rise. When inmate tensions rise, officers are at greater risk.
Without question, inmates in overcrowded prisons do not have proper access to inmate recreation such as full yard time. Proper yard time is essential to help inmates deal with their stress.
Overcrowded inmate recreation yards pose a greater risk to officers who must supervise the yard activity. Yards must be fully staffed and the officers must be fully equipped.
Inmates in prisons that are overcrowded may not receive fresh clothing and bedding as scheduled and per state regulations. Not receiving fresh clothing and bedding causes the living areas to smell and is unsanitary for both inmates and officers.
Increase in sickness and diseases
Overcrowding can lead to an increase in illness and disease among the inmates and officers. If the inmates in overcrowded prisons do not have full access to proper sinks with hot water, showers with hot water, plenty of soap, toilet paper, clean clothes, and toilets, the danger of increased illness and disease is very real.
When inmates suffer increases in illness, many times the officers suffer an increase as well. For example, correctional officers have caught inmates’ colds, pink eye, and the very serious Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus also know as MRSA. Overcrowding affects inmates’ hygiene, and inmates’ poor hygiene means an increase in disease.
When officers get sick they properly stay home from work. When a prison is overcrowded, if the jail supervision does not take steps to replace the ill officer, the officers on duty are put at greater risk due to staffing shortages.
Inmate visiting may be affected negatively by overcrowding conditions. Inmates who do not get their scheduled visits become really angry really fast, and angry inmates tend to attack staff.
Inmates in prisons that are overcrowded may not have full access to the prison store to buy personal care items, etc. Experience has shown when inmates do not have proper access to prison stores, tensions rise. Increase in inmate tensions causes officers to be a greater risk of assault.
Increased assaults on officers and increased inmate on inmate assaults
Experience has shown that inmates in overcrowded prisons suffer an increase in stress and racial tension. The increased stress and tension often lead to inmate on inmate assaults. If officer staffing levels are below minimum, when officers respond in overcrowded prisons then the officers are at greater risk. When inmate tensions rise, many times the inmates will attack the correctional staff.
Inmates who are placed in overcrowded cells (for example, housing six men in a four-man cell, so that two men have to sleep on the floor) have suffered panic attacks and turned violent, often against the officers.
Many inmates who enter prison have issues with authority in the first place. In overcrowded prisons inmates have many more restrictions placed on them. The more restrictions inmates have the more fearful and insecure they may feel. To control their fear they turn to anger. Fearful inmates whose fear has turned to anger frequently take it out on the officers.
There is no question that overcrowding leads to greater danger for the officers.
Lack of equipment
If the amount of emergency equipment the officers need to keep control of the overcrowded prisoners is not increased to match the increase in inmate population, the officers are at greater risk. For example, if there is not a number of sufficient handcuffs and leg chains to control violent inmates, the staff is at greater risk. Another example would be not storing enough tear gas and non-lethal weapons to handle the increase in violence.
Emergency response teams
When a major disturbance, riot, or inmate barricade occurs in an overcrowded prison, without proper staffing of well trained, properly equipped response teams who are properly led, the officers are at greater risk.
If there is an escape, once the response team responds there will be fewer officers left to manage the overcrowded prisoners, placing the staff at greater risk. Mutual aid from surrounding police agencies may have to be called in to assist, which then creates a burden on those police agencies.
When officers respond to emergencies in areas where inmates would not normally live (gym, chapels, etc.), officers are at greater risk because it is more difficult to lock down the inmates. In addition, generally, chapels, conference rooms, theaters etc., do not have gun ports or above ground catwalks for gun coverage. No gun coverage places officers at greater risk.
Sometimes overcrowded inmates are placed in conference rooms, gyms, theaters, etc., where locking mechanisms on the doors are likely not as strong as they need to be. For example, a rioting group of 60 male gang members came within seconds of breaking open the door of a day room. Had these inmates succeeded in breaking open the door, there would have been many injuries to staff and inmates.
When inmates are housed in areas never intended for inmate living, often the security cameras are insufficient due to blind spots. Inmates learn very quickly where these blind spots are located.
If the places where inmates are housed in overcrowded prisons do not have regulation smoke alarms, fire sprinklers, and evacuation routes, and if a fire breaks out, the officers are at greater risk when they attempt to rescue the inmates. A lack of fire suppression alarms/sprinklers, affects the officers as well as the inmates.
Feeding inmates in overcrowded jails and prisons can be problematic. Some times when the food finally reaches the inmates, it is not at regulation temperature. Besides the possibility of the food being unsafe to eat, it causes the inmates to become angry over food not being served at the right temperature. Angry inmates pose a greater threat to the staff.
If a mass evacuation is needed, overcrowding increases the danger to inmates and staff.
Security checks and counts
Correctional officers are at greater risk performing security checks and counts in overcrowded prisons due to the staff being more outnumbered and because inmates may be housed in less secure areas not designed for inmate housing. If the inmates are housed in conference rooms, gyms, theaters, etc, the staff is at greater risk when they walk through the living areas because the inmates are not separated from the staff and are more difficult to lock down. Additionally, overcrowded prisons may mean fewer security checks performed by the officers.
One of the best ways to keep officers and inmates safe is to conduct as many searches as possible. In my experience, housing areas and prisoners do not get searched as often as they should be searched in overcrowded prisons.
Fewer searches mean more contraband, especially jail-made weapons!
When inmates in overcrowded prisons are housed in discipline housing because there is no other place to put them, inmates who have broken the prison rules may have their discipline delayed or simply forgiven. This is dangerous. Without discipline housing for problematic inmates, inmates will know that they can break the rules without consequences. Discipline housing is a must to maintain safety and security for the officers and staff.
Inmates sleeping in “canoes”
If inmates in overcrowded prisons are issued heavy plastic “canoe” type sleeping platforms, then all the prison administration has done is issue the inmates a weapon and a full length body shield. These “canoes” can be used as battering rams. When used as a body shield, impact munitions such as the 40mm launcher and Stinger rounds are rendered useless, as is the Taser. The use of these “canoes” increases the danger to the corrections officers.
It is essential that there be enough supervisors to properly supervise the correctional staff to ensure the officers carry out their duties and that there is no misconduct. This is especially important in overcrowded facilities. Proper supervision means a safer prison.
Ongoing, verifiable, realistic training is a must for properly run prisons and to ensure that the officers work as safely as possible. Due to staffing shortages in overcrowded prisons, regular training cycles may be affected. Commonly, training is conducted during shift, and officers relieve each other to attend training. If there are staffing shortages then reliefs can not be made for training.
It is essential that minimum staffing patterns and staffing levels be maintained so officers are not at greater risk.
While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this information, it is provided for educational purposes and is not intended to provide legal advice.
About the author:
Richard Lichten (Lt. Retired) brings 30 years of front-line law enforcement experience to a wide range of police and jail topics. Twenty of his 30 years in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were in supervisory and command positions. Richard Lichten is deemed a qualified expert in the use of force, use of the Taser, police practices, and jail/prison inmate culture in the State of California Superior Courts, State of Nevada Courts, and in Federal Court.
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