|By Terry Campbell, Professor, Purdue University Global|
Legal issues in corrections are a broad area of discussion. Offices and staff can perform their daily duties and still be sued by inmates. This is just the “Nature of the Beast.” Prison administrators must take an active role in ensuring all staff are properly trained, familiar with agency policies and procedures, and understand the daily legal issues and concerns that surface. If you have not yet been sued, consider yourself lucky. The time may come.
I recall my first time being sued by inmates and receiving a copy of the complaint and a booklet titled “Your day in court.” Even with training from the academy and doing my job, I was now subject to appear in Federal Court and have someone from the Attorney General’s office represent the department and myself. (This representation was contingent upon me responding within the parameters of policy and the law). Prior to the scheduled court date, I met with internal affairs, counsel, and others several times. My report and actions were thoroughly reviewed and scrutinized. Now my nervousness was apparent.
My warden and attorney were able to put things in perspective. I will never forget the warden asking me; ‘how would I like to be in his shoes?’ He was usually named in all complaints. I received some sound advice that still resonates with me today. Relax, tell the truth, I did my job well, I followed departmental policies and procedures, I was building my credibility with the courts, and remember at times the Federal Judge and/or Magistrate may have additional questions. Needless to , this was a great confidence builder. I shared this information with my staff after I was promoted to warden.
You have a responsibility not only as an officer/staff, but to your co-workers, department and family. You have the opportunity to be prepared to deal with anything you come across and can take advantage of any additional training available. This may include opportunities to learn more about legal issues. You can complete this by reviewing any legal updates and attend any training available. Being confident, prepared, improving your knowledge base will assist in the positive and professional image you present on a daily basis. You have a variety of skill sets to deal with daily incidents you may encounter. Now is the opportunity to sharpen your skills and remain at the top of your game.
At times you may find yourself responding to an incident requiring an instantaneous response. You are well-trained and have the confidence to respond accordingly. You cannot afford to be distracted and unsure of how to respond. Safety and potential breeches of security are at risk. Legal issues are a daily occurrence in the performance of your job duties. Reminder, you stand a good chance of being sued. You took an oath and must fulfill this obligation on a daily basis to do the right things. There is no room for personal bias in the performance of your job duties.
Previously I briefly mentioned that legal issues are a broad area. On a daily basis social media is ready to portray corrections as a distorted and evil environment where offender rights are violated. Unfortunately, a segment of society tends to be drawn to these alleged violations of legal issues and rights without having all of the facts. This reinforces ‘why’ we have to ensure our actions and responses are within the legal requirements. I selected prevalent areas where legal action has been taken in the Federal Court’s. The topics I provided are not in any particular order and just topics I am interested in. Even with court decisions, there continue to be new attempts by inmates to challenge pretty much everything we do.
Corrections staff do not have the right to select which incidents they will respond too. All staff is responsible for safety and security issues within the facilities. When staff becomes aware of issues and fail to respond and/or take corrective action; then the door for ‘deliberate indifference’ opens. We have a responsibility to meet annual training hours and the opportunity to select and participate in other training. I strongly recommend you contact your training department and/or unit to see what training materials are available. This may consist of legal updates, technology and equipment, and other areas of interest to you. I found by doing this I increased my corrections and legal knowledge base and vocabulary. This also contributed to increased confidence and was a great motivator.
Corrections administrators have a requirement to ensure staff are properly trained and have the necessary equipment to perform their duties. This includes safety and security issues not only for inmates but staff as well. Also, an adequate number of staff for each shift ensures the facility is controlled by staff and not inmates. We already know when we come together as a team this is reflective throughout the facility and sends a strong message of unity back to the inmate population. When staff are trained, supported by administration, motivated, and understand the overall mission, the potential for a decrease in number of incidents increases.
I mentioned earlier the likelihood of you being sued by inmates due to the action you took to resolve and control something. Take the training and experience you have to continue making the ‘right decisions.’ Good luck.
Terry Campbell is a criminal justice professor at Kaplan University, School of Public Safety and has more than 20 years of experience in corrections and policing. He has served in various roles, including prison warden and parole administrator, for the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Terry may be reached at email@example.com.
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