Facility Self-Inspections Prove Valuable in New Mexico

August 27, 2008

Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative News  —  Detention facility self-inspections test whether facilities are meeting constitutional standards and best practices; protecting juveniles’ rights; and providing the services to which juveniles are legally entitled.

The initial facility self-inspection develops baseline data on conditions of confinement against which progress can be measured. It identifies ways that facility policies and operations can be strengthened. And it provides independent documentation that can support facility administrators’ requests for new resources or policies.

It is a method promoted by JDAI to achieve improved conditions of confinement.

“There’s still going to be some kids confined, even if we do our very best at applying all the reform strategies that we learn in JDAI,” said Frank Orlando, a former juvenile court judge in Florida and current director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

“We know that how we treat kids in confinement can be indicative of philosophy about the work in general.”

Bernalillo Uses Self-Inspections to Improve Detention

The JDAI model site in Bernalillo County (Albuquerque), New Mexico, recently completed its first JDAI inspection of its 80-bed detention facility housing boys and girls.

“Our goal is to implement a system-wide change in the way in which we operate our facility,” said Tom Swisstack, director of the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center.

“We are moving away from a strictly correctional model and moving toward a more therapeutic model.”

Self-Inspections Team Process

Sue Burrell, a staff attorney with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, and her colleagues, assisted Bernalillo personnel in developing the inspection team and then trained the team on the rigorous methodology (the JDAI inspection instrument) that carefully examines all aspects of facility policies, practices and programs. The JDAI inspection instrument contains more than 300 standards grouped under eight general categories: classification; health care; access issues; programming; training and supervision of employees; environmental issues; restraints, punishment and due process; and safety.

Bernalillo’s inspection team was composed of both “facility insiders” and individuals independent of the facility’s day-to-day operation yet knowledgeable in important subject areas, like health care, mental health and education. The detention center’s community advisory board was also asked to participate.

Chris Sanchez, quality assurance compliance manager at the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center, was responsible for overseeing the facility self-inspection process.

Sanchez broke the team into four groups and assigned each group responsibility for two assessment instrument categories. He prepared four files containing a complete set of all documentation needed by each team.

The team spent a full day in a pre-inspection review, in which they familiarized themselves with the institution’s operations and history. They reviewed the detention facility’s written policies and procedures, employee manuals, budget documents, incident reports and complaints, and previous conditions reports.

“This was a great opportunity for everyone to dig deep into detention policy and practice,” said Swisstack. “We wanted them to come to the facility with all their questions.”

Then the inspection team was given unfettered access to the detention facility.

In December 2007, team members spent two days interviewing key staff, including teachers and medical and mental health staff. They also ate meals with youth and interviewed them individually and in groups.

“The JDAI inspections require the team to hear the views of staff and youth on a range of issues and, hopefully, get a sense of the environment; we welcomed this opportunity,” said Sanchez.

The assessment team also looked at the physical condition of the facility, taking note of things like temperature, cleanliness, adequate space, and crowding.

Findings and Next Steps

The final report was distributed in February 2008. It contained 99 findings and eight major recommendations. Bernalillo set immediately to implementing recommendations whenever possible.

The team recommended that the disciplinary process be reviewed to ensure that positive rather than negative rewards are emphasized in the facility behavior-modification program; that families be more involved and suggest strategies to increase communication and support for parents; that the facility’s continuum of programming should be improved, with an emphasis on improving the use of individualized treatment and behavior management plans.

In response to a finding that youth who were detained for less than 30 days were not receiving public school education credits for work completed within the facility, the team recommended a facility/public school task force be convened to resolve the issue. Now youth who attend school while in detention for any amount of time are able to receive credit for completed work back in their community schools.

Finally, the team called for better written policies and procedures to reflect the intent of the self-inspection findings and create continuity from one self-inspection to the next.

Of the 99 findings, more than three-quarters were flagged because the inspectors wanted the written policy to be more concise and to better align with the practices already happening in the facility. As an example, they recommended changing “staff shall review institutional population on a regular basis” to “staff shall review the institutional population daily and identify in writing all youth who are not appropriate for secure detention."

As a result of the inspection and recommendations, detention facility staff have created a corrective action committee to address the 99 findings. They have methodically reviewed the documentation and hope to finalize a corrective action report this summer.

“One of the wonderful things about this process is that it turned the inspectors into citizen-ambassadors who returned to the community singing the praises of our detention facility,” said Sanchez.

“It was really a useful thing for the facility staff and administrators to see things through the eyes of others,” he added.

Local Self-Inspections Augment and Inform State Standards

“One thing we learned in developing the JDAI self-inspection is that state standards, in many cases, are not as specific or as strong as they need to be to ensure safe and humane conditions,” said Burrell. “The same is true of national standards.”

“The JDAI process is an opportunity to look at what’s really happening in the facilities,” she said.

“There’s no detention center in the entire United States that is perfect on every issue,” said Burrell. “But New Mexico’s enthusiasm and efforts are sure to result in benefits for the young people it cares for, their families and the greater community.”


Additional Resources

JDAI Resources on Self-Inspections

Pathways to Juvenile Detention Reform: Improving Conditions of Confinement in Secure Juvenile Detention Centers
This report presents a discussion of what was learned from Casey’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative about improving and maintaining safe, humane institutions. It offers guiding principles, for improving institutional conditions, developing and conducting an assessment, and improving practices.

Detention Facility Self-Assessment: A Practice Guide to Juvenile Detention Reform
Because reducing overcrowding in detention can immediately improve conditions, Casey's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative sites establish “self-inspection” teams of local volunteers to monitor conditions of confinement. This practice guide provides instructions on conducting a secure detention facility self-inspection as well as comprehensive detention standards and an assessment instrument.

From the JDAI Help Desk

Bernalillo County, NM Self Assessment Report 2007.doc
The final report by the JDAI model site self-inspections team.

Technical Assistance Materials
Core JDAI technical assistance materials related to conditions of confinement.

Model Policies, Practices and Programs
Samples of secure juvenile detention operating procedures, criteria and policies.

Sample Reports and Recommendations
Results of the JDAI detention facility self-inspection process.

Self-Assessment Tools and Guidelines
Instructions on conducting a secure detention facility self-inspection which includes comprehensive detention standards as part of the assessment instrument.