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Does Your Jail Pass the “Smell” Test? Part I
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 08/05/2013

Smelltest I teach in service classes for jail personnel and discuss such topics as liability, interacting with inmates and how inmates do time. I enjoy it and have always thought that while jails are dangerous places to work, occasionally inmates will gripe and complain and are justified in doing so. We are not perfect, and sometimes mistakes are made. Mistakes can be in good faith; some are the result of officer stupidity and an “I don’t care attitude”.

I talk in class about what I informally call “CO Self Tests”. Examples could include:
  • “How are the conditions in your jail-would you want to live there as an inmate?”
  • “Think of your colleagues-are there some that will get the agency into a lawsuit?”

After being associated for 35 years with jails as an active duty deputy sheriff and as an instructor and author in retirement, I know that many lawsuits against jail personnel are unjustified and frivolous. But-inmates have occasionally won their day in court. I am firmly convinced that jail personnel can prevent losses in court by being proactive-thinking ahead and trying to foresee dangerous pitfalls and not step into them. Jail training instructors and supervisors should take a simple, clear approach in avoiding areas of liability by taking the jail “smell test”.

This column will address Part I: poor jail conditions that “ripen” the jail for grievances and possible civil rights actions. Poor staff-Part II, will be in a future column.

So-let’s keep it simple and use inmate litigation as a guide. No fancy legal terms, etc.; just a common sense look at what the courts have said must be provided to inmates and an urge to think about how your jail conditions measure up. In Wilson v. Seiter, 111 S. Ct. 2321 (1991), the United States Supreme Court clarified what conditions of confinement, if poorly managed and not properly provided for, applied to the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (cruel and unusual punishment) and could give inmates a civil rights claim. Staff-you¬-can be found liable if you show deliberate indifference to these conditions, and as a result, inmates are denied the “minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities”. These do not have to be “lumped together”; they can be considered separately[2,3].

In other words-can your jail pass the “smell test”? Do any of these aspects of confinement emit an odor? If they do there may be something spoiling underneath. You are the only one that can answer these questions.

Let’s examine each one in a common sense way [2,3]:
  • Food: Is food that is spoiled being served to inmates? Are utensils and trays clean? Is the food nutritious? When you inspect kitchen areas and observe food workers (including inmate “trusties”), are they clean? Would you eat off an inmate food cart?
  • Clothing: We have come a long way concerning inmate clothing. During my jail career, I have seen inmates wear durable, comfortable clothing that was discarded when worn out. Footwear has improved. Is that true in your institution? If shoes do not fit or wear out, for example, can inmates get prompt replacements? Is the facility laundry doing its job and keeping inmate clothing clean? Are clothes in such ragged states that inmates are not provided privacy? Clothing cases are rare, but “never say never”.
  • Shelter: Included in this category is the overall environment: maintenance, noise, heating, cooling, ventilation and cell size. You have no control as to cell size, but look at the others: Are inmates too noisy? Are the heating, air conditioning and climate control all working properly? If anything breaks down-such as air conditioning and the inmates are sweltering, is maintenance responding quickly and fixing the problem properly? When something breaks down-is there an effective notification system or will maintenance “get around to it in time-after all they are just inmates”. Shelter cases come up when the facility is old-so if you work in a jail that was built, for example in the 1950s-how are the conditions?
  • Sanitation: Most inmates practice hygiene-they regularly take showers; they use a toothbrush and deodorant. Tensions can run high in a cellblock if the toilet is backed up or the shower does not drain. If pests such as cockroaches, mice, etc. infest inmate living areas, correctional officers will have tough tours of duty. Are sanitation problems in your facility addressed quickly? Are inmates required to keep their living and work areas clean and are they given adequate supplies to do so?
  • Medical care: How efficient are communications between the inmates and the medical staff? Are inmate health problems and complaints adequately addressed? Are mentally ill inmates properly screened and managed? Have you observed inmates complain of serious ailments or symptoms and have had to wait long periods of time to see the medic? Have you observed inmate medical conditions get worse because medical personnel did not see them? Are apparently mentally ill inmates segregated and forgotten about? If it is established in a lawsuit that an inmate did not receive proper medical and mental health care due to the deliberate indifference or incompetence of staff, the sheriff will have to write a check-most likely a big one.
  • Personal safety: This is another area where large damages have been awarded to inmates and their families. You are duty bound to protect inmates from harm. Harm could come from other inmates, staff or themselves. Do you see inmates engage in fights while correctional officers look the other way? Do inmates complain that they are being threatened and staff does nothing? Are inmate safety concerns ignored or “laughed off”? Is the classification system inadequate where inmates who are predators are placed with weaker inmates? Is the classification staff notified of a potentially dangerous inmate housing situation? Or-do officers have the mindset: “Nothing has happened, all is well”. Do you have any “rogue staff” in your facility? You know-these are officers that routinely use excessive force on inmates. Common sense and level headedness tell you that the force they use is too much and that the rogue officer enjoys it. But-are supervisors informed? Are these officers disciplined? Remember-if an inmate files a lawsuit alleging that he was brutalized-he may recall that you were on scene. You will be named too. Are officers trained in suicide prevention? Is this talked about at roll call or taught in service classes? Is everything being done to protect inmates from self destructive behavior? How effective is your staff in preventing sexual assault-from inmates and staff?
  • Recreation: Recreation can be a great way for inmates to let out tension and stored up energy. At times, due to short staffing, emergencies, etc. inmates may not receive the recommended amount of daily exercise. But-are segregated inmates not afforded recreation opportunities for long periods of time? Have you seen an inmate who is not misbehaving denied exercise because the correctional officer on post does not like him?

Being incarcerated in a jail is not a picnic and it is not meant to be. We pride ourselves in this country of having a modern, humane, well run correctional system. But it cannot be that if under the surface things are spoiling, releasing that figurative “odor”. While not many cases on food or clothing come up, legal actions about safety and medical care occur very frequently. Here are some examples:
  • In 2006, the U.S. Justice Department issued a finding accusing the Dallas County, Texas jail stating that inmates suffered unnecessary injuries and death due to inadequate medical and mental health care. Booking and screening procedures for inmates with mental health and medical problems were inadequate. In 2011, the case against the jail was dismissed because the jail had made great improvements in these areas [4].
  • In 2007, Harrison County, Mississippi settled with a deceased inmate’s family in the amount of $3.5 million in the alleged beating death of the inmate. A former jail officer was convicted of civil rights violations and the use of excessive force. He was sentenced to life in prison [1,5].

So-the next time that you are walking through your jail, hopefully thinking about staying out of a civil lawsuit or keeping grievances to a minimum, stop, pause and take the smell test. Think of the basic conditions and necessities that the courts have ruled must be provided to inmates. Take a look around. How ya’ doin’?

Part II of the Does Your Jail Pass the “Smell” Test? Series will discuss problem staff. Click here for Part II

  1. Burton, Keith. (2007, July 2). Harrison County Reaches Settlement in Williams Jail Beating Death Lawsuit. GulfCoastNews.com. retrieved January 30, 2012, from http://www.gulfcoatsnews.com/GCNarchive/2007/GCNnewsWilliamsLawsuitSettled 07/02...

  2. Collins, William C., J.D. (2010). Correctional Law for the Correctional Officer, 5th Edition. Alexandria: American Correctional Association.

  3. Cornelius, Gary F. (2010). The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Second Edition. Durham: Carolina Academic Press.

  4. DOJ. DOJ Dismisses case against Dallas County Jail. (2011, November 14). The Corrections Connection. Retrieved December 2, 2011 from www.corrections.com/news/article/29653

  5. WLOXabc13. (2007, November 1). Former Jailer Ryan Teel Sentenced to Life in Prison. Retrieved April 13, 2012 from http://lawreport.org/ViewStory.aspx?StoryID=5959

Corrections.com author, Gary Cornelius, is an interim member on the Board of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local jails. He is also a member of ACA, AJA, and the American Association of Correctional and Forensic Psychology. In 2008, Gary co founded ETC, LLC, Education and Training in Corrections with colleague Timothy P. Manley, MSW, LCSW, Forensic Social Worker.

Visit the Gary Cornelius page

Other articles by Cornelius:


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