Managing a jail or prison facility like a well-oiled machine isn’t any simple task. It’s crucial to integrate standardization in your facility to create a safe and secure environment for your staff and inmates. ACA accreditation is an internationally-known standardization system that keeps correctional facilities operating smoothly by applying corrections-specific standards. Earning ACA accreditation is an extremely common goal for most (if not all) correctional facilities to achieve as it benefits the facility operations and the well-being of the staff and inmates.


The term “ACA accreditation” is intimidating and sounds like a grueling process of climbing mountains of paperwork. However, that is a common misconception. ACA accreditation is meant to upgrade facility operations through standards specific to all facility functions, including safety, security, order, inmate care, programs, justice, and administration (American Correctional Association, n.d.). This reading will explain the steps that need to be taken in order to be ranked as one of the 900 and growing international facilities to achieve ACA accreditation. Hence, it’s a select group of facilities who will care enough to put in the time and effort to go through a series of reviews, evaluations, audits, and hearings in order to ensure they have the utmost safe and secure jail or prison as possible.

What Is ACA Accreditation?

Definition

The American Correctional Association (ACA) is a non-profit organization managed by current and former corrections officials who award accreditation to jails and prisons. Accreditation is a structure of confirmation that agencies and facilities comply with standards created by the ACA (Friedmann, 2014). ACA standards ensure all operations of correctional facilities run effectively. Accreditation evaluations include: facility services, programs and operations, administrative controls and documentation, staff training and development, safety and emergency procedures, sanitation, food service and meal tracking, and rules and discipline, all to ensure standards reflect practical, updated policies and procedures that protect the life, health, and safety of staff and offenders (“Frequently Asked Questions,” n.d.).

History

Creating the accreditation process for correctional standards was first attempted in 1870 at the Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. This conference eventually became the organizing meeting of the National Prison Association. Standards were first developed during the 1940’s and 1950’s but took until the 1960’s for court leaders to dig deeper into prison conditions and begin considering the legitimacy of correctional issues. After courts understood the importance of establishing correctional standards, the ACA began implementing. The courts and ACA had a common goal in mind: providing attainable practices that could be achieved across a large variety ofcorrectional operations, including adult, juvenile, training academies, industry programs, and central administration offices (“The History of Standards & Accreditation,” n.d.).


How Can a Facility Become Accredited?

Gaining accreditation sounds like a beastly task, but the first step is easy. First, it is highly recommended that the facility leadership and staff agree to some extent on accreditation so it builds a more unified environment. The facility leadership can ultimately decide to implement accreditation with or without the opinions of the staff, however, the process will operate more smoothly when the entire staff believes in the same philosophy of wanting the best for its facility. If all team members can’t provide the same answer when asked “what makes your facility better than other facilities?”, then the team should reconnect and discuss priorities. Once most, if not all, staff members are on the same page, they should assemble an Accreditation Team with a leader and then contact a Standards & Accreditation Specialist at the ACA office to gather the materials to implement the accreditation process.

Although there are 25 different ACA accreditation manuals, each specialist works specifically with the regulations of the state the facility is based in. The specialist works directly with the facility or agency management to show them the ropes of the accreditation process, provide applicable written documentation and policies, assign and train auditors, and discuss the specific requirements of each standard (“The History of Standards & Accreditation,” n.d.). Hence, why it’s important for the agency to all have the same goal at the top of mind. 

Put to the Test

The entire accreditation process from conception to completion usually takes from six months to one year. It starts from expressing your interest in pursuing accreditation to the ACA office and then signing contracts that are based on the size of your facility. Fortunately, facilities are able to set their own audit deadline so they are aware of how much time they have to prepare and implement all their specific standards. Once the facility feels they are ready to be put to the test, there are typically two to four auditors that complete the audit (depending on the size of the facility).

There are three ways the auditors verify compliance: written policy, written procedure, and demonstration of the standard that is in place. They confirm that each standard shows evidence of how they are met by requiring physical verification (for example, security logs or photos pertaining to the standard). The whole audit finalizing process can take three to four days, but it’s required that every three years facilities have check-ups on their standards to make sure their accreditation still stands true.

The Importance of ACA Standards

The standards are the foundation of the accreditation process. They define policies and procedures necessary for the operation of correctional programs that safeguard life, health and safety of the personnel who work in juvenile and adult facilities and programs; as well as the offenders who are a part of the correctional system.
The History of Standards & Accreditation,” n.d.

How Many Standards Does a Facility Need to Follow to Earn Accreditation?

There are two different types of standards: mandatory and non-mandatory. In order for a facility or agency to earn accreditation, they must comply with 100 percent of the applicable mandatory standards and at least 90 percent of applicable non-mandatory standards. An example of a mandatory standard would be a facility complying with all applicable laws and regulations of the governing jurisdiction and implementing various inspections. An example of a non-mandatory standard would be collecting proper cell checks on a timely basis. The facility would need to have a system in place for physically counting inmates with at least one formal count per shift with no less than three counts per day.

If a facility finds itself out of compliance, they can apply for a waiver granted by the ACA (for example, small cells since the facility was built before new cell size regulations). Each of these standards can differ depending on the accreditation manual a facility follows. The ACA also evaluates the conditions of the quality of life when deciding on awarding accreditation (“Frequently Asked Questions,” n.d.).

Can Standards Be Updated or Omitted?

Revision requests can be made prior to the annual ACA conference. All revisions must be approved by the majority vote of the ACA before a final decision. Updated standards are published every two years (“The History of Standards & Accreditation,” n.d.). Since standards are being revised constantly, some standards require a continuation of new or updated pieces, also known as “reaccreditation.” Every three years, a compliance audit and accreditation hearing takes place to collect the major vote and come to a final decision of a reaccreditation (“Frequently Asked Questions,” n.d.). 

Who Are The Auditors and What Do They Do?

Auditors are specifically selected by the ACA and typically have had experience in the corrections field for over 18 years (“Frequently Asked Questions,” n.d.). The audit procedure involves an evaluation of administration and management, institutional operations and services, and inmate programs. In essence, auditors closely review anything that may impact the safety and health of the facility’s staff and offenders (“Seeking Accreditation,” n.d.). 

From an Auditor’s Perspective

Kelly Martin is an ACA auditor and Certified Jail Manager from southern California with roughly 20 years of experience in corrections. He enjoys his profession as an auditor but also understands that some facilities struggle with considering ACA accreditation. From a facility standpoint, the staff can portray the accreditation process negatively because they assume an auditor will barge into their facility and point out all the areas where they are failing. Although Kelly acknowledges this standpoint from a facility, he wants to make it clear that that is not the intention of an ACA auditor. An auditor’s goal is to help the facility achieve the ACA standards in order to run the facility as best as possible.

A large role of being an auditor is to be the voice of the facility to the accreditation management and administration. They are there to be a resource for the facility and its staff - they want to award ACA accreditation to as many facilities as possible but only successfully pass those who meet and exceed ACA standards. In fact, one of Kelly’s favorite aspects of being an auditor is traveling to different facilities, noting their operation processes, and sharing those concepts with other facilities in order to enhance as many locations as possible and improve the industry as a whole.

While there are some facilities that are wary of getting the ACA accreditation, there are several more that are eager to improve their facility. Kelly believes that this mindset is crucial to have when entering the accreditation process. However, this particular mindset starts from a culture - a facility needs to want to hold themselves to a higher standard in order to successfully adopt ACA accreditation. In fact, there are some facilities that host their own internal mock-audits before having ACA auditors come to the facility for the actual evaluation.

Kelly believes that the popularity of ACA accreditation is growing, especially with government agencies understanding more and more the importance of implementing the standards. He recommends that facilities looking for ACA accreditation should be prepared with questions, be open to constructive criticism and willing to change in order to enhance their operations and build a more quality-run facility. 

From an Accreditation Manager’s Perspective

Tracey Case, the accreditation manager of Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in Chattanooga, TN, has 22 years of experience in corrections and 10 years of experience working with accreditation procedures. The title “Accreditation Manager” was specifically created for Tracey as the position requires someone to focus solely on accreditation processes, including policies and procedures, standards compliance, routine inspections, facility operations, daily inspections, and audit files. Essentially, her position is the middleman between officer supervisors and ACA Standards & Accreditation Specialists.

Being the middleman allows Tracey to see both parties’ perspectives - she understands how officers can be hesitant of wanting accreditation as it seems like someone will always be watching over their every move, while simultaneously understanding that having accreditation holds the facility to the highest level of safety procedures and living conditions. Tracey believes the largest issue with accreditation isn’t that the officers can’t perform their standards well, but documenting them to prove that it actually happened. The officers know what they are supposed to be doing in order to comply with the standards, but it’s easy to get away from after years go by. However, audits take place every three years, so it’s important to document their procedures to prove they are still in compliance with their standards.

Before the final decision in a jail or prison facility is made to get accreditation, Tracey believes that it’s important to have the support of the administration staff as the cost and commitment are very high. All officers having the same positive mentality can make it a significantly smoother process. It’s critical to know that the whole accreditation process is long and tedious - there is a lot of information to learn and implement, and that can be overwhelming. However, once you get into the groove, you are bettering your facility. 

Benefits of ACA Accreditation

More Money In Your Backpocket

Facilities and agencies that have been awarded the ACA accreditation have a stronger defense against litigation and lawsuits than agencies who don’t. Written documentation proves the "good faith" efforts behind a facility working on improving its conditions of the quality of life and compliance levels. Most insurance companies reward jail or prison facilities who have ACA accreditation by reducing their liability insurance costs resulting in savings that more than offset the actual cost of accreditation (“Seeking Accreditation,” n.d.). 

Improved Quality of Staff Attitude

The ACA training courses focus closely on personally and professionally developing the facility staff. Growth is a fundamental objective when participating in these classes when discussing new theories and techniques to implement. Accreditation is only awarded to the "best of the best" in the corrections field, but that can only be achieved when the staff is able to work in the “best of the best” conditions and mentalities. Not only should the environment of the facility be safe and secure, but also the mental state of each officer. Morale affects everybody in the facility, staff members and inmates alike. Every step of the accreditation process ensures a clear assessment of strengths and weaknesses in order to pursue an improved environment that everyone can benefit from (“Seeking Accreditation,” n.d.).

Keep Your Facility Ahead of the Game

Earning accreditation sounds like a difficult project until you realize how easy the first step is - the staff must agree that it wants the best for its facility. If everyone can’t provide the same answer when asked “what makes your facility better than other facilities?” then the team should reconnect and discuss facility priorities. Once all members are on the same page and want to benefit from their everyday jobs, then accreditation can begin to take place. Be ahead of the game. For more information on ACA accreditation, please visit the resources below.

References:

Friedmann, Alex (2014). How the Courts View ACA Accreditation 

Retrieved from https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2014/oct/10/how-courts-view-aca-accreditation/#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20ACA%2C%20%E2%80%9CAccreditation,evaluations%2C%20audits%20and%20hearings.%E2%80%9D


American Correctional Association (n.d.). The History of Standards & Accreditation

Retrieved from

https://www.aca.org/ACA_Prod_IMIS/ACA_Member/Standards___Accreditation/About_Us/ACA_Member/Standards_and_Accreditation/SAC_AboutUs.aspx


American Correctional Association (n.d.). Frequently Asked Questions

Retrieved from

https://www.aca.org/ACA_Prod_IMIS/ACA_Member/Standards___Accreditation/About_Us/FAQs/ACA_Member/Standards_and_Accreditation/Standards__FAQ.aspx?hkey=b1dbaa4b-91ef-4922-8e7d-281f012963ce


American Correctional Association (n.d.). Seeking Accreditation

Retrieved from https://www.aca.org/ACA_Prod_IMIS/ACA_Member/Standards___Accreditation/Seeking_Accreditation/ACA_Member/Standards_and_Accreditation/Seeking_Accreditation_Home.aspx?hkey=ed52ffa0-24e4-4575-9242-1aa9d7107e69


Kelly Martin | Certified Jail Manager, ACA Auditor & Consultant


Tracey Case | Accreditation Manager of Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office