The number of rapes and other violent crimes at Shelby County Jail in Memphis, Tenn., was at such a high level that the U.S. Department of Justice issued a letter saying the conditions at the jail violated detainees’ constitutional rights.
If the jail didn’t fix these violations, the justice department would sue.
That was in 2002. Today, the jail is among the 4 percent of the nation’s more than 3,200 jails to earn national accreditation with the American Correctional Association. “We knew what we had to do, and we agreed with the department of justice that we had a problem,” said jail Director James E. Coleman, who was hired as an assistant chief one year prior to the warning.
Coleman said the department didn’t adequately train officers in the use of force, and that the jail had a weak useof- force policy–”which was not specific about what actions correctional officers should take in certain situations. Others also blamed jail staff, particularly existing officers, for the violence and instability. The sheriff at the time decided not to run for re-election, but backed his chief deputy, who didn’t make it past the primary. Instead, Sheriff Mark H. Luttrell Jr. ran for the office with a campaign pledge to fix the problems detailed by the Justice Department, Coleman said. Luttrell won, and after being sworn in, fired two of the jail’s top four managers–”sparing Coleman’s job. The sheriff’s administration laid off 300 of the jail’s staff, mostly correctional officers.
The jail remodeled its facility, rearranging inmate housing so that officer stations were located inside each area where detainees were housed. Under the old model, officers were mostly disconnected physically from detainees. But under the new model, each dormitory-style area had its own guard station, which allowed officers to observe and interact with inmates day and night. This new system was called “direct supervision.”
At first, correctional officers resisted the new system until they witnessed it firsthand at another jail. When they saw how well it worked, they became more accepting. “There’s a psychological advantage to direct supervision that I don’t think people grasp right away,” Coleman said. “You’re putting the officer in the housing unit with the inmates.” Coleman said this fosters cooperation between officers and detainees, thus decreasing violence.
The officers had been unaccustomed to such close contact with inmates and had to learn new methods of maintaining and restoring order when violence erupted. To help them, Shelby County Jail devised a set of guidelines for how to use force. The revised policy dictated when force would be required and how much should be applied, ranging from verbal commands up to, but not including, lethal force.
Use-of-force training became mandatory for officers and supervisors, and the jail set up a system to monitor officer compliance. Officers were required to document each incident in writing and, when possible, videotape them.
The reports, videotapes and surveillance camera footage were reviewed by at least four levels of managers. When an officer used inappropriate force, action was taken. Sometimes that meant a conversation with the officer. At other times, it led to termination, Coleman said.
“Being accountable at every level–” that is the most important thing of all,” he added. “The great thing about a jail or correctional environment is, except in a major riot situation, we’re in a confined and controlled environment. We have time to take our time and do it right.”