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COVID-19 and Its Impact on the Correctional System

Addressing differential polices/practices in the correctional system concerning ‘Essential’ vs. ‘Non-essential’ personnel
– Robert J. Marcello, Ph.D., LCP, CCHP

Most organizations, including statewide prison systems and local/regional jails, have policies in place that differentiate between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ personnel. In the correctional system, essential personnel are typically those who would normally work throughout the week, as well as on weekends and holidays; that is, the number and types of security, food service, plant operations, and medical staff to ensure that the facility is kept secure and operating efficiently, and that its residents (inmates, offenders, detainees) have access to an appropriate level of medical care and food service. Non-essential personnel in the correctional system include the remainder of the staff who typically work a ‘Monday-Friday’ schedule, including, but not limited to, administration, support staff, expanded number and types of medical personnel, mental health providers, counselors, and additional food service personnel.

Most organizations also have a system of communication in place to let staff know whether they are required to report on a given day. For example, ‘Code Red’ might require essential personnel only to report, with non-essential personnel staying at home and receiving an extra paid day off (that is, a ‘snow day’). ‘Code Yellow’ might require essential personnel to report and give discretion to non-essential personnel to either report or use their own leave time if they choose not to report (‘liberal leave’ policies). Finally, ‘Code Green’ is a communication that all must report, as things are back to regular operating procedures.

Generally speaking, policies and procedures such as those described above are implemented either during or before circumstances that interfere with normal operating procedures. A common example might be that a major snowstorm, hurricane, or some other weather event is predicted/anticipated. Using a snowstorm as an example, essential personnel are required to be on the job, and stay on the job, until relieved. This might require some to temporarily stay at or close to the facility for several days due to difficult travel conditions. While this is going on, non-essential personnel are not required to report to work, and indeed, might be the beneficiaries of ‘extra’ paid days off during the most critical periods, followed by one or more ‘delayed opening’ and/or ‘tele-work’ days before typical operations resume. While such disparity in the approach to ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ groups of employees could potentially lead to resentment and the perception of ‘double standards’, these circumstances are typically short-lived, and can potentially be offset by incentives, bonuses, or other rewards to the essential staff.

COVID-19 represents a different level of challenge to the correctional system, and most systems are finding that their traditional ‘essential’ vs. ‘non-essential’ policies/practices do not adequately meet this challenge. For instance, COVID-19 is not a time-limited event. It has already been with us for several weeks or more, and opinions differ significantly regarding when the worst of it might arrive and/or pass. Accordingly, we can’t just ‘bear down’ for a few days until the snow stops and the streets have been plowed. We have to be prepared for a longer period of disruption to regular operating procedures.

In addition, many systems have had to redefine and expand the meaning of ‘essential’ personnel, as it’s one thing to run a facility for a few days without support staff, mental health providers, and others, and it’s quite another to operate without these individuals for extended periods of time. Thus, persons previously considered to be ‘non-essential’, are now required to function in a ‘business as usual’ mode, albeit with increased precautions put in place to prevent and/or minimize the spread of the virus.

A third difference is that during a snowstorm, the increased risk occurs to and from work and, once at work, staff aren’t facing any significant risks other than those that they might encounter on a typical work day, as let’s face it, working in a prison or jail environment is ‘no day at the beach’ on a good day. With COVID-19, the risk may increase significantly once the employee clears security and enters the facility. Inherent with this situation is the heightened level of stress added to an already difficult job.

Still another level of difficulty could result from a perception that there is a disparity between precautions taken with central office and support staff, in contrast to site-level staff. For example, central office and support staff might be: receiving instructions to practice social distance; given permission to tele-work; instructed to conduct meetings by video and/or teleconference; cancel large meetings, conferences, and most travel; and not to visit a site or go through security into a jail unless it is absolutely necessary. At the same time, site-level staff are re-classified as ‘essential personnel’ and instructed to report to their site and/or jail on a daily basis. As indicated previously, such disparities could lead to the development of resentment, and the perception that ‘double standards’ exist.

As a result, it would not be surprising for the following to occur: increased call-outs at the facility level; increased reliance upon ‘forced overtime’; increased turnover; increased difficulty recruiting; decreased morale at the facility level; and increased staffing-related costs (e.g., overtime, incentives, bonuses, use of locum tenens and agency staff). The end result of this would be an organization attempting to meet increased challenges with a depletion of its most important resource; that is, its employees.

Following are some recommendations/suggestions for organizational leaders on how to prevent such an outcome from occurring in the first place, or how to address it if it has already begun to take hold:

  • Continue to visit the ‘front lines’ as much as feasible, following the same precautionary guidelines that you have instituted for facility staff. Making such visits, and following these procedures, will communicate to the staff that ‘we’re all in this together’, and ‘we have confidence in the procedures that we’ve instituted to protect you’.
  • Seek input from essential personnel before implementing procedural changes, and seek feedback and be open to additional changes, once plans have been implemented.
  • Encourage tele-working where possible for essential personnel. For example, if staff reported to the site 3 of 5 days instead of daily and were able to work remotely using tele-health technology, service levels could be maintained while simultaneously promoting social distancing and reducing the level of potential exposure to the COVID 19 virus.
  • Stagger schedules of Monday-Friday staff to promote further social distancing.
  • When feasible, offer temporary incentives such as increased compensation, bonuses, and increased paid time off to site-level staff.

Implementing steps such as these could potentially result in:

  • decreased perception that ‘double standards’ exist;
  • increased morale among site-level staff;
  • decreased level of stress at the site level;
  • decreased level of potential exposure to the COVID 19 virus; and,
  • increased levels of service delivery efficiencies without compromising, and possibly even improving, the levels of service provided.

While COVID-19 presents us with challenges that most of us have not faced in our careers, we are also having the opportunity to change, and improve, the way we do business on a daily basis. Once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, the challenge will be to maintain these improvements, and not return to ‘the way we used to do things. If we are able to successfully adapt and maintain our strengthened policies and procedures, and develop new best practices in response to COVID-19, we’ll emerge as stronger and more resilient organizations, and will be better prepared to take on the new challenges that we will almost certainly face in the future.

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