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H1N1 Virus (Pandemic) Planning: Play It Safe-Over-Plan
By William Sturgeon
Published: 09/28/2009

Inmates on break There has been a great deal written about the H1N1 virus (aka Swine Flu). There are articles spanning the medical gamut from who should be immunized to when schools should be closed. Everything that I have read has beeninsightful and useful. I will incorporate much of the information that gleaned from my research into this article. This article is being written as a WARNING for correctional facilities and/or places where people live in close contact with each other (juvenile facilities, college dormitories.) H1N1 virus may, like the Y2K alarm, turn out to be a big bust, or it may turn out to be the most significant medical event in recent memory. It is better to be prepared than to be caught unprepared.

I am sure that every correctional facility/agency has, as part of its Emergency / Contingency Plan, a section dealing with medical emergencies, to include contagious diseases and pandemics. What I want to insure is that the facilities’ current plans for pandemics fully anticipate the enormous impact that a lengthy flu pandemic could have on a correctional agency. This article will address focus on operational issues involving STAFF andthe OFFENDERS, - should there be a pandemic. What most concerns me are the unknown dynamics of how quickly a possible pandemic can appear and spread.

Who will actually be affected by the disease and how will the disease manifest itself in a closed correctional environment? If the H1N1 Virus comes on slowly and spreads slowly, that will dictate one way to manage its effects on the operations of correctional facilities. If it comes on rapidly and spreads rapidly, that will dictate another way to manage its effects. Regardless of how fast or slow the pandemic hits, it will certainly have animpact on the staffing of correctional facilities and the care of the offenders. This care is the responsibility of the correctional agency. Where

I feel most Correctional Emergency / Contingency Planners might have a tendency to “under-plan” is in the area of staffing. I worry that the planners will not take into account the overall effects on staffing and offender care. This could happen for several reasons:
  • They are planning from their own experiences, paradigms, and/or what they have been told by others.
  • There has not been a pandemic in modern times that planners can learn from.
  • Today’s planners are influenced by their supervisors/managers and the political landscape.
  • These are difficult times to be asking for additional funds for staff and offender training, equipment, and supplies for a “potential” disaster.
  • They are trying to predict the future to people who are trying to manage the present.

As with every situation, circumstance, challenge and/or problem, it will be the professional correctional staff who will shoulder the load. I do believe, however, that correctional agencies must be able to demonstrate that they have planned for all staff and offender care contingenciesassociated with H1N1 virus.

The staffing of correctional facilities will prove to be very demanding should there be a pandemic outbreak. Historically, correctional events are relatively short in duration. Should the H1N1 pandemic strike, it will evolve over an extended period. Therefore, one staffing schedule will not suffice. In my opinion, there has to be a series of staffing schedules. These staffing schedules must also take into consideration “real life” conditions.

Staffing schedules should be based upon the following factors:
  • Staffing levels should be developed around these principles (Have a plan in place should the staffing levels drop to the various levels.)
    • Ideal
    • 75 %
    • 50 %
    • 25 %
    • 10%
  • Medical status of correctional personnel (newly infected – fever has broken – back to work)
  • Medical status of each offenders (newly infected – fever has broken– back to work)
  • Prioritizing of security posts and other work assignments using the following criteria. As you prioritize your posts and work assignments, ask the question, “WHY does this post or work assignment need to be filled?”
    • Must fill
    • Must fill as needed
    • Nice to fill
    • Does not need to be filled
  • Number of staff available for each shift.
    • Security
    • Medical
    • Programs
    • Recreation
    • Administrative
    • Maintenance
      (Some facilities may have to adjust their staffing hours. Example: Normal staffing is composed of 8-hour shifts. Emergency staffing may have to be expanded to 12-hour shifts.)
  • Number of sick offenders. This count should be continuous so that resources can be deployed efficiently.
  • By classification
  • Living assignments
  • Each offender’s status (newly infected – very ill – fever has broken – back to living area)
  • Number of offenders housed in civilian hospitals
  • Number of staff assigned to guard offenders in civilian hospitals

If the H1N1 virus infects a large number of the offender population, most correctional facilities will need help from external healthcare groups and agencies. Too often, correctional planners make assumptions that the agency/ facility will have sufficient staff in their ancillary departments(medical, food service, maintenance, etc.) to manage their areas. In the case of a pandemic, all of these departments will also be operating withreduced staff due to the flu.

Real World

Above we have discussed the plan for staffing should the H1N1 virus strike a correctional facility. What we will discuss in this section are the “RealWorld” issues involving staff and offenders. Correctional personnel have risen to every challenge that has come their way. The H1N1 virus, however, is not the normal correctional problem. It is not a riot, major disturbance, offender food strike, etc.

The H1N1 virus is an illness that could have deadly consequences depending on individual circumstances. There has been a great deal written by the medical people about the H1N1 virus, yet there still are many unknowns. A crucial unknown is how the H1N1 will manifest itself in a correctional (closed/confined) environment. If large numbers of offenders get seriously ill, this could affect the workforce in a variety of ways:
  • There is something psychologically frightening about a disease (Virus, Flu, Plague). Correctional administrations should be prepared for an unanticipated increase of staff “calling-in” sick. The “Real World” quotient is that a great many of today’s correctional employees are “singleparents” and this status will undoubtedly have some influence on whether they will compromise the safety of their children by exposing themselves to offenders with the N1N1.
  • The ferocity with which the H1N1 virus strikes a correctional facility, and how sick the offenders become, I believe, will also have a direct influence on staffing levels. If there are numbers of offenders displaying serious gastrointestinal illness and other flu systems, I wouldexpect the staffing of the facility to fluctuate in direct correlation to the number of sick offenders.

Should the H1N1 virus strike a correctional facility with a significant number of the staff and offenders getting ill, “Real World” issues will bethat the offender population will become anxious about themselves and their families in the “free world.” Too often, when planning for pandemics,emergencies, etc., we forget to remember that offenders are people and have the same worries, feelings, love of family as other people do. Therefore, from an operational point of view, pandemic plans must include the following:
  • Establish a plan for getting “factual” information to the offender population.
    • Number of offenders who are ill
    • Number of offenders who have died because of the virus
    • What public health personnel are saying about how soon the virus will pass
  • Have counselors available to work with the offenders who have sick family members.
    • Having counselors available to offenders can help offenders deal with their frustration of being away from their families at such a crucial time. Counselors can ward-off incidents such as escape attempts, violent confrontations between staff and offenders, and/or offender on offender.

Real World operational implications of quarantine or isolation must be a part of the plans.Examples of questions that must be addressed include:
  • How will the facility accommodate staff who are not permitted to leave the facility (feeding, sleeping, clothing, etc.)?
  • How will staff that become ill be treated?
  • Is there a mechanism in place to assist single parents to arrange for the care of their children?
  • How will offenders who have mandatory out dates be managed? Specifically, where will these offenders be held?
    • If they are well and have had the flu
    • If they are well and have not had the flu
    • If they are ill with the flu at the date of discharge
  • How will you communicate the following pre-determined provisions?
    • That offenders’ visiting is suspended until further notice
    • That lawyers’ visits are suspended until further notice
    • How courts will be advised that offenders are sick with the flu
    • How will supply companies and the United States Post Office, etc., make deliveries.
    • How will outgoing mail be managed?


To what extent the H1N1 virus will affect the world is, as of now, an unknown. As for the correctional community, the H1N1 virus may be theultimate test of an agency’s pandemic plan. It is reasonable to expect that correctional personnel will be asked to perform duties outside of the normal job requirements. Depending on how hard the H1N1 virus strikes, a facility will determine how the Emergency/Contingency Plans work. Just remember that the “Old Man – Me” has always believed that it is better to over-plan than to under-plan.

While there may be many model plans floating around on the Internet, I believe that each facility must develop its own plan. General plans do not take into account the “specifics” of each facility, its staffing, and the potential acuity levels of its offender population. It is crucial that correctional administrators and correctional medical personnel keep abreast of how the H1N1 virus manifest itself through the country. Good luck and make sure that you get your flu shots.

Visit the Bill Sturgeon page


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