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Classification – The Engine That Makes Correctional Facilities Go
By Gerard J. Horgan , Superintendent, Suffolk County House of Correction MA
Published: 11/05/2012

Inmate jail
An effective classification process is crucial to a well-run facility. It is also a key to ensuring the safety of corrections professionals and inmates. Staff needs to be confident in the classification moves that are made and the inmates need to have a clear working knowledge of what is expected from them to move forward in the system. In my view, there are a number of crucial components to a successful classification plan. They are:

Initial Intake / Screening: All inmates being admitted to a facility will optimally have a screening done by classification that includes age, gender, tendency for disruptive behavior, PREA concerns, and the governing charge that caused the present incarceration. Other factors should be looked into as well including past criminal history, other pending court matters, the need for special housing, the number of prior incarcerations, previous institutional record and the inmate’s program needs. A detailed screening allows Officers, Program Staff and Medical Professionals the ability to know who they are dealing with on a daily basis. It also lets the inmates know that the facility has a good working knowledge of their background.

A Complete and Effective Policy: Every facility should have a detailed classification policy that clearly lays out the criteria for forward movement and which criminal charges will disqualify inmates for some lower security levels including minimum security and / or pre-release. The policy should also define staff responsibility, the minimum requirements for certain statuses, and the appeal process for inmates.

It is important for all staff who have frequent inmate contact to know what is involved in the classification policy and screening process. Periodic training in the criteria used in the classification policy helps ensure that the inmates don’t know more than the Officers and Caseworkers. Additionally, it will help ensure that the staff buys into the Department’s philosophy especially if their input is taken into consideration.

Individual Service Plan: Ideally, each inmate will receive a detailed and objective ISP soon after their arrival. The ISP should clearly define the criteria for movement forward and backward. A complete ISP will be a road map for the entire incarceration of the inmate. Optimally, it will have the time frame that an inmate can progress through the system and will detail the lowest level of security which the inmate can achieve. This potential progress through the system must be contingent on good institutional behavior, participation in programming and satisfactory performance in work details. Inmate should know how disciplinary reports will negatively impact their classification status and how severe the setback will be when they receive disciplinary offenses.

Successful Integration with Other Areas: No matter how well written and thought out a classification plan is, it will not be effective if it is a silo from other disciplines in the Department. Having Officers and program staff vote on inmates’ housing status at classification boards is a good way to ensure that classification is not an island from the rest of the operation. It also allows the people who interact with the inmates on a daily basis and know how their behavior the best to have a say in their movement. If the inmate frequently challenges staff and is borderline non-compliant in the housing unit, it may not result in formal discipline; however, the Officers will be able to report this to the classification board. The Officer will also be able to report if the inmate is doing the right thing and give a recommendation for positive movement forward.

Similarly, if the inmate is not giving 100% in their programming, the Social Worker or Teacher can report this to the board. If the inmate is taking his/her programs and classes seriously and is trying to have a successful reentry into society, the program staff can inform the rest of the board before a decision is made.

The facility’s Gang Intelligence Unit should also be used as a resource by classification as they will have information on the dynamics between the groups that may cause dissension and/or disruption in the units.

A good classification operation is truly the driving force of correctional facilities. It helps prisons and jails meet their goal of ensuring the safety of the staff and the inmates by giving positive incentives for good behavior and disincentives for bad behavior. If a classification plan is effectively integrated with programming, it also can assist with a lower recidivism rate as inmates will focus on programming out of self-interest that may start as wanting a better housing status but hopefully will end with them focused on their rehabilitation.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author, Gerard J. Horgan, has been the Superintendent at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston since 2003. He has been with the Sheriff’s Department for 24 years. A graduate of Northeastern University and Suffolk University Law School, Horgan has trained staff in inmate rights and civil liability and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Massachusetts where he teaches Corrections and Criminal Justice. He can be reached at ghorgan@scsdma.org.

Other articles by Horgan:


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