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Police practice: public tours of local jails.

If citizens asked to tour their local jail, what would they be told? Every jurisdiction should consider its policies in view of this valid question. While employees at correctional facilities must ensure institutional security, they still can safely allow some access to members of the public.


Many jails provide specially organized tours for college students, civic groups, and special-interest organizations. However, not all facilities make provisions for the general public as a whole, thereby foregoing the many benefits that opening jails to citizens offers.


Officials at some facilities may cite concerns over security, liability, or negative public opinion as reasons for not allowing community members to tour jails. However, these visits seemingly would pose no such threats.

For instance, detention facilities already contain the most dangerous elements of society, so a citizen with a civic interest and no pending criminal matters likely would not jeopardize security. Further, many institutions already receive routine visits without incident by a variety of civilians affiliated with specific programs. And, a clearly defined tour plan, proper notices, and hold-harmless agreements greatly would reduce the potential for liability.(1) Finally, if jail administrators are concerned about negative public opinion, perhaps, this issue warrants an analysis to verify that the facility has adequate resources and performs appropriately.

Openness to the Public

Allowing citizens to obtain knowledge about jail operations is consistent with government standards of openness. Current laws and practices in many jurisdictions require public release of all records not specifically protected by legal authority. (2) The long-standing principle of transparency in government also provides citizens with access to nearly all sessions of federal, state, and local legislative bodies, as well as most types of court proceedings. All government tiers and entities should follow this principle.

The Freedom of Information Act requires federal departments to disclose general documents and records to any person. (3) Some state and local governments have gone even further. For instance, in 2004, California voters amended the state constitution to guarantee the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business. (4) Elected officials, academicians, public-policy experts, newspaper editors, civil libertarians, and watchdog groups all have praised such transparency.

Education of the Community

Law enforcement and corrections agencies enjoy certain protections because of the nature and sensitivity of their work, sometimes resulting in an organization's absence from the public conscience.

Not only do correctional facilities carry out important functions for society, including protection from criminals, care and custody of inmates, and a significant role in the administration of due process rights, but their high operational costs represent a significant burden on the taxpayer. A lack of public knowledge concerning jails can prove not only unfair for the taxpaying citizen but detrimental to the correctional facility.

For instance, an absence of awareness has resulted in most Americans feeling that life in jails does not affect them. (5) Unfortunately, what happens inside these facilities can spill out in a variety of forms, such as violence on the streets, increased gang recruitment and criminal sophistication, wasted and unproductive lives, and, occasionally, lawsuits that cost taxpayers. (6)

Further, the expenses of correctional facilities--including operations and maintenance--impact citizens. For example, Santa Cruz County, California, operates a jail with an average daily population of 600 inmates, and the detention bureau budget is $18.7 million, approximately 5 percent of the general county budget. (7) In addition to operating costs, expensive lawsuits can stem from complaints, such as excessive force, overcrowding, segregation policies, and inadequate medical care. And, eventually, most agencies need to build new jail facilities to increase capacity or to replace aging structures. The more the public understands the importance of properly functioning detention systems, the more likely they will support measures to improve, maintain, or replace them.

With so much at stake, perhaps, the time has come for correctional facilities to strive for more public awareness--consistent, of course, with the legitimate concerns about safety and security. Certainly, many aspects of jail operations e.g., blueprints and security procedures) require confidentiality because disclosing them would increase the possibility of escape, violence, or the introduction of contraband. However, this is not true of every area of operation, and those that will not become compromised by accessibility, thereby affecting the security of the institution, should be more open to the public.

Citizen Involvement

Generally, jails have improved in recent decades, largely due to regulatory efforts and professional correctional standards. But, despite the best intentions of the legislature, courts, and facility managers and employees, there are no guarantees that jails always will function as planned.

Regulatory agencies play an important but limited role in the quality of jail operations. For instance, the California Correctional Standards Authority conducts biennial facility inspections but not routine investigations or oversight. (8) As another example, civil grand juries conduct annual inspections of the condition and management of public detention facilities but have only an advisory role. (9) In other words, while such entities take part in assessing correctional systems, they cannot replace the benefits provided by genuine public interest. Although a handful of nonprofit organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, exist that advocate for prisoner rights, these agencies have only limited impact. To make sure that correctional institutions operate effectively, increasing the number of available safeguards proves helpful.

To this end, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons recommended that jails allow public visits, stressing that not only could citizens learn about problems, as well as good practices, in facilities but tours could serve as informal monitoring mechanisms. Citizens do not have to feel sympathetic toward inmates to have an interest in a properly maintained and operated jail. They can serve their part--along with laws, court opinions, and the agency's policies and professionalism--in ensuring that minimally acceptable standards for correctional facilities exist and that they are enforced. Further, the presence of citizens could help to normalize the custody environment by allowing community standards to influence inmate behavior. (10) While officials may find it difficult to generate public interest in jails, they should make opportunities for education and involvement available.


Structured Program

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office, in view of its commitment to community policing and openness with the community, began its public jail tour program in November 2006. Currently, the agency offers tours only to adults (not on probation or parole or with pending criminal matters), 10 participants at a time.

On the department's Web site, interested persons can review detailed information about the program.(11) After acknowledging the notices of risk and liability and agreeing to abide by all rules and guidelines, they can submit a request for a tour, along with identifying information, which allows for basic record checks. The agency later will notify them via e-mail of approval or denial.

To emphasize the safety and security of the participants and the facility, the department closely monitors these visits and diligently enforces its rules, which govern conduct, attire, and prohibited items. When visitors arrive at the scheduled time, staff members check their identification and give them a waiver of liability to review and sign that the agency retains. A correctional officer able to explain how the jail operates and what it is like to work there leads all tours, which last between 45 and 60 minutes and encompass all common areas throughout the facility except maximum-security housing.

Positive Results

Through the program, the agency has enjoyed the opportunity not only to educate citizens about the facility and its operations but to nurture positive relationships with the community at large. For instance, local media, including newspaper and television, have responded favorably to the program and to the department's openness and spirit of public service and have offered extended coverage to inform citizens about the tours.

Participants who have toured the jail have expressed surprise about the cleanliness and order within the facility, as well as the professionalism and knowledge of the staff. Several citizens have expressed interest in corrections or related fields, such as correctional nursing or drug and alcohol abuse counseling.

The department also is forming closer relationships with area universities and hopes to eventually work with the academic community to draw on its resources to study relevant corrections issues, such as overcrowding strategies, alternatives to incarceration, and justice and equity within the criminal justice system. Further, the sheriff plans to notify local college professors about the possibility of incorporating jail tours to add real-world experience to their curriculum. Besides receiving an educational opportunity, students who otherwise would be unfamiliar with corrections may consider a career in law enforcement.

Additionally, the agency has found that several professionals associated with the criminal justice system, including court support staff and members of community-based organizations who provide peripheral services to inmates, now have the opportunity to see how the jail functions. As a result, they have gained a greater understanding of the circumstances surrounding the inmates, many of whom they will deal with upon release.


Jails represent a part of society that is not necessarily at the forefront of the public conscience. Jurisdictions can help change that by allowing and encouraging tours of their facilities. Certainly, valid reasons exist to do so.

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office has a successful program in place and has enjoyed many benefits. Such openness results in an educated, interested, and supportive community. Other jurisdictions should consider allowing tours of their facilities.


(1) Agencies should consult with legal counsel for advice and assistance concerning notices and waivers.

(2) Public disclosure laws vary among municipal, county, and state government agencies.

(3) For more information, see

(4) California Constitution Article 1, Section 3(b)(1) and California Government Code 6250.

(5) For more information, see

(6) For more information, see

(7) County of Santa Cruz, California, Detention and Correction Budget, Fiscal Year 2005-2006.

(8) California Penal Code Section 6031.

(9)California Penal Code Section 919.

(10) Supra note 6.

(11)For more information, see

RELATED ARTICLE: Example of Jail Tour Guidelines

For eligibility, visitors must--

* be at least 18 years old;

* possess government-issued photo identification; and

* not be on parole or probation; have an arrest warrant or a pending criminal matter; or be a sex, arson, gang, or narcotics registrant.

Appropriate conduct is required; visitors must--

* follow all instructions given by correctional officers;

* not communicate with or pass an item to any inmate;

* wear a visitor badge at all times in the facility;

* remain with the tour group at all times;

* not touch any equipment; and

* not be under the influence of illegal drugs, alcohol, or judgment-impairing medication.

All visitors are subject to search before entrance and must not possess any prohibited items, which include--

* weapons of any kind, including firearms, ammunition, knives, or chemical sprays;

* tools, explosives, flammables, or chemicals;

* illegal drugs, alcohol, tobacco, matches, or lighters;

* electronic devices, such as cell phones, cameras, pagers, and audio or video recorders; and

* keys, purses, backpacks, bags, or bulky items.

Visitors must dress appropriately and not display--

* clothing, accessories, or tattoos that contain images, words, or symbols that are offensive, obscene, gang or hate related, distracting, or disruptive;

* transparent or revealing garments;

* shorts or sandals;

* spaghetti strap, strapless, halter, midriff, tube, or tank tops; slingshot shirts; or short dresses or skirts; or

* clothing or accessories with spikes, razor blades, or other sharp objects.

Lieutenant Wilson serves with the Santa Cruz County, California, Sheriff's Office.
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Article Details
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Author:Wilson, Craig R.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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