By Todd Duncan, Law Enforcement and Safety Specialist
Inmate checks, sometimes erroneously referred to as “cell checks,” are one of the most critical tasks performed by corrections officers throughout their shifts. These checks serve several important purposes including verifying inmate welfare (suicide prevention, checking for signs of medical distress, etc.), preventing escape attempts, detecting law/rule violations, and providing inmates with opportunities to communicate with staff. Inmate checks also satisfy a core Nebraska Jail Standards requirement.
In addition to ensuring safety, security, and compliance with standards, inmate checks play a critical role in defending potential claims of negligence or deliberate indifference made against the individual employee, administrator, and county. But as with any repetitive, routine task it can be easy to grow complacent or begin taking shortcuts when conducting inmate checks.
Put eyes on every inmate every time
It is essential to verify signs of life such as breathing, talking, snoring, or movement with every inmate every time. And while video surveillance cameras can be helpful, they cannot be used as a substitute for in-person inmate checks. Per Jail Standards, “Electronic surveillance shall not substitute for periodic personal observations by facility employees.” (NAC, Title 81, Chapt. 2, Sect. 004.02C).
Take the time to do proper checks
With staffing challenges and increases in jail populations, there is no shortage of work during a typical corrections officer’s shift. It is usually not laziness, but workloads or fear of being late with checks that cause corrections officers to rush or take shortcuts. Take the time to do them right.
When it comes to frequency, Jail Standards require staff to personally view inmates, “often enough to maintain their safekeeping, but in no event less than one time per hour and document it.” (NAC, Title 81, Chapt. 2, Sect. 004.02B). However, it may be necessary to do checks more frequently for high-risk individuals.
How long does it take to properly assess one inmate? At least ten seconds or longer when you consider that a typical person only takes about 12 to 16 breaths per minute. Any less time and it is pretty difficult to verify signs of life and check for any indications of medical distress. It is also essential that staff members see the inmate’s skin during every check. Far too many inmates have used blankets or other objects to create the appearance of someone sleeping in a bunk to hide escape or suicide attempts.
Corrections officers usually serve multiple roles within the jail which requires them to multitask. But when it comes to inmate checks, it is important to remain focused on the task at hand, accounting for each inmate and verifying signs of life. If someone approaches you during your checks to chat or request something, politely let them know that you will get back to them as soon as possible once your rounds are completed.
Jails are an unpredictable environment, and we all get busy from time to time. If you get behind on your rounds or are pulled away for an emergency, avoid rushing the remaining checks. Instead, complete the inmate checks properly as soon as possible and document the reason for the delay. Falsifying or pencil whipping logs is not the solution.
Avoid banging on cell to confirm life
Verifying signs of life when inmates are sleeping can create challenges, but as a matter of routine waking inmates up every hour (or more often) is usually not a good solution. While I would rather have a grumpy inmate over a suicide or escape, there are other ways to accomplish the goal without waking inmates up every hour. Moreover, multiple lawsuits have been filed by inmates against correctional facilities claiming civil rights violations based on sleep deprivation related to inmate checks. Research has also shown that “sleep deprivation might itself contribute to psychotic symptoms, suicidal behaviors, and other adverse outcomes.”1 Simply take a few extra seconds to watch for the rise and fall of the chest or other movement or sound. Another challenge in this area is that it is not uncommon for inmates to cover their heads with their blankets to sleep. However, correctional officers should never allow inmates to fully cover up in this fashion as it makes conducting proper checks difficult or impossible.
Maintain accurate and detailed records
Accurate, timely, and detailed documentation of inmate checks is essential. Pencil whipping log entries with, “0800, 0900, 1000…” is a red flag to supervisors and auditors and is usually a good indication that inmate checks are not being done properly. It is also advisable to notate the inmate’s state when logging the checks. For instance, instead of simply noting the time of the check (i.e., 0800, 0849, 0940, etc.), consider including observations such as, “0800- lying L side, 0849- lying R side, 0940- watching TV, 1035- eating.”
One of the first things a plaintiff’s attorney will look at when an inmate dies or suffers a serious injury while in custody is the jail video. The purpose of this video review is not only to determine what happened but also to see if what was written in the log matches the actual checks that were conducted by staff.
Finally, the role of the supervisor is critical in ensuring effective inmate checks through training, setting expectations, monitoring performance, and coaching. It is also highly recommended that supervisors regularly review logs to ensure accuracy and timeliness and to verify that log entries match video.
When it comes to the care, custody, and control of inmates, few tasks are as important as inmate checks. While seemingly tedious, these checks are one of the primary methods of maintaining a safe, secure jail while reducing liability.