Factors that influence the use of force in a correctional institution

Both police and correctional personnel use force to maintain order, keep people safe, and enforce the law. But, the manner in which this force is evaluated is often very different. First of all, correctional use of force is evaluated under the “cruel and unusual punishment" standard rather than the “objective reasonableness” standard that the police use of force is evaluated.

Second, there are certain presumptions about correctional use of force that must be challenged in order to justify use of force within a correctional facility.

To this end, certain factors that influence correctional use of force need to be understood in order to allow correctional personnel the latitude to properly understand, apply, and defend their force decisions in order to keep themselves, their community, and inmates in their care and custody as safe as possible.

The degree to which these factors exist in your institution will determine what special restrictions are placed on your use of force. Where you work, the type of facility you work in and specific situations that you become involved in will all affect the evaluation of such.

These factors I mentioned that influence the use of force in your correctional facility are designed to assist you in making and defending your decisions. The better they are understood, the better you will respond and explain. Attorneys will attempt to confuse the issue by using these presumptions on the correctional use of force. You will need to carefully explain why some or all of these presumptions weren’t valid in light of your actions.

In order to better understand, how to defend your force decisions, some of these presumptions are listed below – along with a short discussion of each factor to assist you in understanding their impact.

Some of the factors that affect the correctional use of force are:

  1. The need for physical force options is reduced in the controlled environment that exists in an institution.

    Street officers often deal with the subjects in oftentimes unknown, uncontrolled locations, such as bars, residences, and street corners.  Correctional officers are not dealing with their inmates on the street in their environment. The inmates are in a correctional facility —  in the officers’ “house.” Make sure to carefully document emergency situations where the “controlled environment” gets out of control due to emergency situations, major disturbances or other special circumstances (e.g., new inmate arriving at your institution’s booking area, a sudden close quarters assault, riot situation, etc.).
  2.  Public perception of the nature of an institutional environment restricts the use of force.

    Some would argue that “public perception” should not influence an officer’s use of force in an institutional environment but as in all “rules of engagement” it does. Officers need to keep themselves physically safe at the point of impact but need to be able to articulate why their use of force was necessary in order to keep them legal safe, as well.  Be ready to win both the battle and the war in the ever increasing difficult task of justifying your institutional use-of-force. Make sure to use the sport’s world “color commentary” concept that Bob Willis discussed in a PoliceOne Video Tactical Tip to explain in a very graphic and emotional terms exactly what you felt and the danger you perceived at the time of your use of force.

    Bob Willis discussed in a PoliceOne Video Tactical Tip

  3. Background information on the subject aids in classification and prevention of use of force situations.

    Unlike many street situations, where the person you are dealing with is unknown to the officer, once an inmate is identified and classified, “background information” assists correctional personnel in dealing with problem inmates. The intake/booking room is an area where “background information” is less available to institutional personnel because the inmate has just arrived and the inmate is just being identified, back-ground checked, and classified. This may be true with long-term inmates, but what about the new booking or the inmate that you have never “run into” before? As always, explain the special circumstances that made this encounter different.
  4. Rapid multiple officer response minimizes the need for use of force options.

    Unlike most street situations, where officers often face problems with little or no back up, correctional emergencies can often be handled using a team response. Efficient, coordinated response by a number of officers can often reduce the need for physical intervention through the use of a “show or force.” Or, where force is needed, a team response can utilized a subject control approach where less intrusive physical control tactics are possible. 

    If you find yourself alone, dealing with an emergency situation, make sure to document that reason that you had to operate alone with no back-up available. This may be true in a large facility but how about a small one or a facility where third shift staffing doesn’t allow for multiple officer response.  In every facility, there are times, even in the largest facilities, when the multiple emergencies are happening at the same time and there is no one left to send to assist you. Again, note the exceptions to the rule – why was this incident different?
  5. Surveillance technology aids in early detection and suppression of situations that require the use of force.

    The use of camera and other monitoring devices can detect problems early, assist in getting help to the scene early, and assist in documenting the event. Unfortunately the first two benefits of surveillance technology are not possible if this equipment in not being continually monitored. Make sure to note the availability, monitoring, and use of surveillance technology in your reports, if applicable.
  6. The physical design of an institution aids in the isolation of problem areas.

    Correctional facilities are by their nature designed to be able to isolate disturbance in cells, dayrooms, cell blocks, or entire facilities. The extent to which is possible is determined by the type of facility, i.e. camp system, minimum to maximum security, and the area of the facility that you are located. Make sure to document what type of correctional environment that you were in – especially if isolation of the incident was not possible. Note special circumstances that interfered with your ability to isolate an incident — a blocked or malfunctioning door or a security fate mistakenly left open or opened may help to explain why your use-of-force was necessary. 
  7. The ability to wait out potential violent confrontations and control the moment of initial contact reduces the need for physical force options.

    Make sure to differentiate whether you initiated the event by deciding to entering the disturbance site or if the you where already involved with the disturbance began.  Remember that, in situations where no one is immediately in danger, until you open the door and enter the area, everyone — for the moment — is physically safe. There are times when you need to open that door and enter the area due to either other persons or the inmate him/herself being in danger, but make sure that you enter based on a plan and not reflex. Read Responding to correctional emergencies.

    Remember that if you can’t justify your reason entering the area than your actions, i.e. use of force, becomes the “fruits of the poisonous tree” and anything that you do after this point may be determined to be improper. Your decision to enter also needs to include evaluating the “desirability” of entering now or waiting for back up. Either decision will need to be defended
  8. Rule violations result in disciplinary action rather than a physical arrest process that often times lead to physical confrontations.

    Unlike a street officer, who often has to arrest and take a subject into physical custody in order charge and process them, the inmate in a correctional facility is already in custody.  Delayed disciplinary action can often be used to deal with the inmate’s behavior in a less stressful, less immediate, and therefore, less dangerous manner. Remember to carefully document when immediate, physical intervention was necessary based on the inmate’s behavior and circumstances that existed at time of the incident. 

    If the inmate is already in a cell but needs to be moved to discipline, remember that this may not have to happen immediately — waiting can often reduce the chance of a physical altercation. If it is necessary, due to the inmates danger to him/herself or because the inmate is creating such a disturbance that s/he needs to be moved immediately, make sure to have enough officers or even a specialized team to do it right.
  9. The development of verbalization skills as a vehicle for diffusing physical confrontations; i.e., negotiations vs. physical control techniques, limits the need for physical confrontations.

    Tactical communication should be used to de-escalate situations whenever possible — or where necessary, to explain why immediate, physical intervention was necessary.  In a correctional environment, every effort must be made to verbally de-escalate the situation, when possible.  Remember to carefully document why immediate intervention was needed.  Check out the recent Corrections1 examination of how to use de-escalation tactics at the cell door and Dr. George Thompson’s discussion of how a Peace Warrior-Defender can use language to calm a potential violent situation or another example of a correctional peace story.

    However, you need remember the Crisis Intervention Fallacy Concept that states that no matter how well the officer does in attempting verbal de-escalation, if the inmate isn’t listening, i.e. hearing, processing, and responding to the message, than force may still be needed to stabilize the situation. Make sure to carefully note not only your physical control tactics but your attempts at verbal de-escalation as well.
  10. The availability of on-site rapid supervisory response limits the decision-making role of the individual officer.

    Unlike the normal street situation, where the officer or officers usually deal with an emergency without the benefit of a having a first-line supervisor available at their location, correctional institutions often have these supervisors assigned to high risk / high volume areas or immediate available when needed. Remember to document the presence or a supervisor, when they arrived on the scene, or why a supervisor wasn’t available. The arrival of a supervisor on the scene brings a fresh perspective and skill set to the problem, as well as, when necessary, another pair of hands to physically stabilize the situation. 

    Remember that you can’t involve a supervisor in your decision making process and share responsibility with him/her unless you call them to the scene when necessary. You can’t say that s/he “failed to properly supervise” unless the “knew or should have known” about your incident. 

The degree to which these factors apply (or don't apply) to your institution and emergency situations will determine how intrusive your physical intervention will need to be. It will also determine whether or not you'll be able to justify your force response.

Remember, even the best designed, best trained and most modern facilities can experience times when "perfect storm" conditions could justify high-level control tactics when otherwise less intrusive methods would have been appropriate. On the other hand, the fewer of these factors that exist in a facility, the more a high level of force will be questioned. At some point, the question will be asked as to whether or not the command staff knew that unsafe conditions existed and that actions should have been taken to circumvent these situations before bad things happened.

These factors that influence the use of force in your correctional facility are designed to assist you in making and defending your decision to use force. The better these factors are understood, the better you will respond to these incidents. Your ability to recognize and address these presumptions in your response and report writing will assist you in dealing with the questions that are sure to come from your administration, the courts, and the communities that you serve.

For more information about this topic, you can contact Gary Klugiewicz at gtklugiewicz@cs.com.

Adapted from an article printed in "The P.S.D.I. Memorandum", the newsletter for the Justice System Training Association, Inc., a national defensive tactics instructor’s organization.


Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.