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How Headcount Procedures Can Eliminate the Next Inmate Escape

A proper headcount procedure empowers your facility to stand on a firm foundation. There are several factors to consider when conducting a proper headcount including formality, movement, documentation, and so on. These are only a few of the many elements that ensure a legitimate headcount, help manage a secure facility, and eliminate the possibility of an inmate escape incident.
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch
Chris Riedmueller | Product Trainer

When it’s time for a headcount, *most* inmates know the drill. They comply and return to their assigned cell or bunk and wait to be physically identified and counted by a correctional officer. Counting bodies sounds like a simple task, but there are different methods of doing so. This blog will define different types of headcounts as well as some best practices for ensuring your headcount numbers are matching the roster numbers at all times. Then, we will look at how you can leverage technology to make this critical task more effective. Who knew there were so many ways to count heads?!

Whether a headcount is a part of your state standards or facility policy, it’s crucial that headcount procedures are a part of your staff’s daily tasks and are accurately conducted. The highest priority of every officer should be to collect the correct number of incarcerated individuals while doing their counts. Chris Riedmueller, Product Trainer at GUARDIAN RFID, has visited over 75 jails across the United States and has observed that every facility has its own particular way of conducting headcounts. However, Chris also noticed some commonalities between all facilities that help to make the process more efficient. Let’s dive into the common strategies that Chris has noted during his travels throughout several different American jails. 

There are two main types of headcounts: informal and formal. Even though both methods get the job done, they are performed differently. An “informal headcount'' is simply a body count. This is where a correctional officer performs their regular rounds and simultaneously counts bodies. It doesn’t get much more “informal” than that. On the other hand, a “formal” headcount is a little more intense process and is commonly called a “name and face” count. This is where correctional officers verify that each inmate is present inside of their assigned personal living unit and cross-references the pod roster by checking off names as they encounter each individual. You may be thinking, “Conducting an informal headcount sounds a lot easier than a formal headcount.” Of course, it does! The informal headcount strategy doesn’t require much effort while the formal headcount strategy takes time and energy to complete. However, a popular best practice that several facilities use while conducting each of these types of headcounts is called the “blind count.” A blind count is where staff perform a headcount without knowing the total population number from the roster. That way, they can get a more truthful number to report rather than just quickly skimming the count and assuming it all adds up to the roster number. Blind counts can prevent tired eyes from seeing what they want to see, so to speak.

Not only are there “types” of headcounts, but there are also different methods of how to conduct headcounts as well. For starters, let’s think about the number of distractions that can take place in a jail: meal passes, court transports, health examinations, etc. These are only a few examples of why it is so important to eliminate distractions while conducting a headcount. In fact, most facilities will typically pause all movements throughout the facility (except for medical emergencies) in order to remove any interruptions. The unit, block, or even the entire facility will stay on lockdown until the headcount is completed and the total number is confirmed. Not only does stopping all unnecessary movement help speed up the process, but it also reduces the likelihood of an inmate being counted more than once. 

We’ve all heard the saying, “Timing is everything,” and that couldn’t be truer when it comes to conducting headcounts. The timing of when you conduct a headcount needs to be strategic. For example, starting your count as close as possible to shift change allows the oncoming correctional officer to know exactly how many inmates they're responsible for. This is only possible because you strategically waited to perform your count until you were almost done with your shift and passed along that number to the next shift staff. Not only is it most likely extremely appreciated by the oncoming staff, but now they’re aware of how many inmates they’re supervising. Imagine you’re on the oncoming officer and conduct a count during your shift and discover a discrepancy against the number the previous shift officer recorded! How sick to your stomach would you feel? To avoid ever being in this situation, it’s a best practice to do final counts as close as possible to the shift change time.  

The thought, “How often should I be doing counts?” may have crossed your mind. And the answer is, it depends on your state standards or facility policy. However, that shouldn’t stop you from doing more counts, just to be on the safe side. Performing at least one formal count a day is just the beginning - not only does it allow the facility to verify every inmate is present but also ensures that every inmate has a face-to-face interaction with staff at least once a day. The best-case scenario is to do as many headcounts as possible, some at a standard set time and others infrequently. The benefit of infrequent or unannounced counts is the ability of keeping inmates on their toes. Inmates have a lot of time on their hands while they’re incarcerated. It’s easy to notice “events” happening, such as the regularity of headcounts. For example, if inmates know that counts are completed every day at shift change (which occurs every twelve hours), it becomes a part of their daily routine. If inmates can recognize the pattern of when headcounts are conducted, they can see it as an opportunity to manipulate the system and “Andy Dufresne” their ass out of the jail. By conducting infrequent counts (or extra rounds for that matter) we can, at a minimum, reduce the amount of lead time that an inmate has to disappear, should they breach the walls. It’s a scary thought, but it’s completely preventable if you do your part.

Unless you’re a numbers whiz, it can be difficult to remember the numbers you counted when you do several counts a day. Sure, you can write down the number while constantly cross-referencing and updating the roster, but have you ever relieved an officer of a shift with a pod roster with seven names added and five names scratched off? It’s simply cost-prohibitive to print a new pod roster every time the roster changes. However, utilizing technology for your headcounts can make it a much, much more efficient process. If your facility uses electronic tracking devices, you may have the ability to see how many inmates reside behind each door so you can continuously do informal counts every time you conduct a round. Electronic rounds devices may also be able to conduct formal headcounts. In this method, a continuously updated pod roster will allow the correctional officer to scan an inmate’s ID to verify their presence during the headcount. Once everyone in the pod has been accounted for, the headcount can be saved. This can be even further leveraged if the watch commander can clear count by watching each pod being counted. The ability for a correctional officer to not have to call in their count (either by radio or phone) is a tremendous advantage as it allows the officer to direct their focus right back on the unit.

Protecting America’s Thins Gray Line is a labor-intensive duty. Conducting headcounts can be exhausting, but it’s a vital part of your facility's security and getting your team home safely. No matter what type of headcount style you choose to utilize, consider implementing some of the best practices listed above. When a headcount sounds like the last task you want to complete, keep the following in mind: if the unexplainable happens, how much of a head start are you willing to tell the sheriff that an inmate has?