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Managing facilities: objective offender classification is key to proper housing decisions.

The past decade has witnessed enormous progress in the adoption of objective classification systems by prisons and jails. Virtually every state prison system now relies on objective classification to guide inmate housing decisions. Although jails have lagged behind in this area, they now are implementing such systems in record numbers.

The National Institute of Corrections has recognized the importance of objective classification by providing assistance and training to agencies interested in adopting such systems. Also, several national studies have documented the success of classification systems in improving safety and reducing costs.

While much has been written about the benefits of classification, there has been little discussion of how such systems improve security within a prison or jail. Following is a discussion of how classification enhances facility security.

Separating Inmates By Security Level

The primary objective of a classification system is to identify extremely aggressive inmates who need to be housed in a high security area, as well as those who require little security or are at risk of being victimized. While this seems like an obvious objective, it often goes unfulfilled.

Much of today's correctional litigation stems from cases in which an aggressive inmate or one with a history of assaultive behavior was housed with a more passive inmate. Such errors often end in tragedy, harming the inmates, their families and the reputations of the agency and facility.

Though relatively uncommon, these situations cause considerable concern in the field. Classification systems help minimize problems by requiring that trained staff control all housing decisions and by establishing policies and procedures that reduce the potential for negligence.

The separation issue is particularly relevant to special housing decisions. Some of the most visible and critical decisions made in a facility involve determining which inmates need to be separated from the general population due to mental health, medical or other reasons. This is especially true for the nation's jail system, which handles more than 12 million admissions and bookings annually. Without a classification system to identify inmates with special needs, the facility's security will be severely compromised.

Misclassification and Crowding

Crowding is one of the biggest issues facing correctional facilities today. When a facility is at or over capacity, it is extremely difficult to place inmates in appropriate units. Minimum custody inmates, for example, should be housed in minimum security units. However, crowding constraints can make this impossible, resulting in misclassification. A good classification system imposes safeguards to minimize misclassification and ensure a safe environment for staff and inmates. Such a system maximizes the classification information for all inmates.

For example, if there are not enough beds to house all the maximum security inmates, only the lowest risk among them should be placed in medium security units. And maximum security inmates should never be put in minimum security units. Similarly, if there are not enough minimum security beds, the classification system should identify the higher level minimum custody inmates who can be placed in available medium security beds. These inmates should never be placed in maximum security units.

Reducing Tensions

The classification system directly affects the overall climate of the facility; one wrong housing decision can jeopardize a facility's security. The system helps reduce violence and escape attempts by housing inmates according to their risk level and establishes an objective classification method that is easily understood by staff and inmates. This makes it difficult for staff or inmates to influence housing decisions.

Before classification, it was possible for inmates who were dissatisfied with their housing or wanted to transfer to a less secure unit to repeatedly ask to be moved until they found someone who would grant the request. Under a well-functioning, centrally controlled classification system, such manipulation is far less likely to occur because all cases are treated uniformly. In addition, such a structure circumvents the tension that can arise in a more informal system.

More Accurate Deployment Of Staff and Inmates

After agencies began using objective classification, it became clear that correctional systems had been placing inmates in more secure, more expensive units than were necessary. With the advent of objective classification, maximum custody populations declined, while minimum and medium custody populations increased.

These trends have enabled agencies to redeploy both staff and inmates to appropriate custody levels. Inmates previously housed in maximum security units were moved to less secure units that required fewer staff. The net result was a less expensive operation with fewer violent incidents.

Classification systems also have facilitated a more accurate analysis of future bed and staffing needs. Because objective classification systems are numerically scored and are computerized, researchers and planners can use the data for planning purposes. Specifically, more sophisticated projection models can be used to estimate the size of future populations with a breakdown by custody level. Such analysis allows planners to determine future staff needs and bed capacity. These projections also can be used to test the impact of changes in sentencing and classification and policies.

Classification plays a central role in managing a modern correctional facility and planning for its future needs. Without an objective classification system, it is impossible to determine which inmates should be separated from one another, how staff should be deployed, how best to control crowding, how to avoid unnecessary litigation and how to plan the next generation of correctional facilities. Without classification, a correctional facility can never be truly secure.

James Austin, Ph.D., is executive vice president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in San Francisco.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:In Complete Control: Correctional Security
Author:Austin, James
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1994
Words:910
Previous Article:Inmate transportation poses unique security challenges.
Next Article:Management and treatment of institutionalized violent juveniles.
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