Much has been written about the design, construction and operation of prisons and jails. Many private companies do nothing but design and construct correctional facilities. This is certainly not the case for the design, construction and operation of probation and parole offices.
Probation and parole office design hasn't received very much attention because these offices are not 24-hour facilities and because historically they have been viewed as little more than way stations for officers between home visits. However, four recent trends have generated some concern about the safety and efficiency of correctional field offices.
* Due to a combination of larger caseloads, more violent offenders and a reduced emphasis on home and work visits, officers are spending considerably more time in the office and more offenders are being required to go there for supervision contacts.
* More communities are objecting to the placement of probation and parole offices in their neighborhoods. In California, for example, a number of cities have strenuously protested placement of offices within their boundaries, fearing an increase in crime and a decrease in property values and commerce in the immediate vicinity. As a result, many cities and towns have passed restrictive laws that take into account proximity to residential areas, schools, playgrounds, daycare centers and even school bus stops.
* There have been a number of widely publicized incidents in which irate citizens have entered offices housing government services and attempted to harm employees. While these incidents are not limited to probation or parole offices, given the offenders these offices serve, they are certainly high-risk targets.
* More enforcement functions are being done in probation and parole offices than in the past. Substance abuse tests, arrests and other high-risk functions are now fairly common. Agencies need to design offices to accommodate such activities safely and efficiently.
These trends make this an opportune time to explore guidelines for selecting an office location, designing it with a primary focus on employee safety, and establishing procedures for preventing and managing critical incidents.
Even if your state does not have office location restrictions like those in California, you should be careful to choose a location that will meet with minimal community resistance. The following steps should not significantly slow down the site search but can generate goodwill in the community and minimize potential problems.
1. Consult the local planning commission to determine written and unwritten zoning restrictions and ordinances. Notify local officials of your intent to locate an office in their community and seek their advice regarding appropriate locations. When you have selected a site, notify the council member or commissioner for that area of your decision and the basis for making it.
2. Be sensitive to the proximity of the potential office to schools, playgrounds, daycare centers and residences. It may not be possible to avoid all of them, but documenting your search can pay tremendous dividends later if an incident occurs at one of these locations.
3. Advertise your needs. All potential landlords should have a chance to show their properties. I am aware of several occasions in which a site selection was held up for months because of the protests of a landlord who was never made aware of an agency's need for office space.
It is tempting to try to locate a new office as quietly and discretely as possible. While this approach probably worked in the past, in this day and age, when public fear of crime is great and economic fears are high, sensitivity to the public and public officials will pay dividends and may prevent passage of restrictive statutes similar to those in California.
I do not mean to suggest that you should allow others to ultimately determine whether or not you should locate an office in a particular community. If your agency determines that an office is needed in a given area, then you should be prepared to defend your decision. However, if there is resistance and the decision gets media coverage--as it did on several occasions in California--the agency's position will be stronger and more defensible if these front-end steps were taken.
Several factors should be considered when selecting a site. The search should encompass an area roughly in the center of the geographical area served by the office. This minimizes undue travel by offenders coming to the office and officers making home visits and employment calls. (I am assuming that some field work will occur.)
The search area should be served by public transportation. Many probationers and parolees do not have cars or are restricted from driving. Real estate values also should be a consideration. A call to a commercial real estate broker will quickly give you average square-foot lease costs for different parts of the area.
In California, we found that the most desirable locations were areas of light manufacturing and warehousing. These tended to be newer industrial parks with buildings that could easily be modified to meet the needs of a probation/parole office. They also tended to be less costly and usually were not close to private residences and schools. These sites usually generated little, if any, community resistance.
The building selected should meet the following criteria:
1. It should be large enough to accommodate projected office staff growth. It's not enough to make room only for the employees who will be housed there when the office opens. If you skimp on size, you will end up paying for it later--and usually at a significantly higher cost.
2. The building should be easy to modify to meet employee needs and be functional from an operational and safety standpoint. All construction and modification plans should be included in the long-term lease, and they should be done by the building owner and amortized over the life of the lease.
3. The building must have adequate parking for both offenders and staff. This simple need was frequently neglected in California's early office site selection, and the correction nearly always proved difficult and costly. Remember to also consider staff growth.
4. The cost per square foot should generally be competitive with other similar buildings in the immediate area. However, the agency should be prepared to pay a little more than the prevailing rate if the site meets all your specifications or if a public outcry has occurred and the selected site will clearly reduce this resistance.
New construction is obviously an option. However, in most jurisdictions, this is generally undesirable. It tends to be expensive, and new buildings are not always easily disposed of when they are no longer needed. Leases on existing buildings with periodic escape clauses are usually a better option for government.
Probation and parole offices in existing government buildings that also house other agencies have generally proved ineffective. In nearly every instance where this was attempted in California, the parole office was ultimately evicted because of the disruptive type of people that came to and congregated around the office.
A number of design concepts will make the office safer and more efficient and will help in critical incident management. Whether you decide to construct a new facility or modify an existing one, consider the following:
1. A private office for each officer is ideal. This permits officers to work without distraction and provides privacy during interviews with offenders and their families.
If the budget or available space does not allow for individual offices, it is critical to dedicate some office space for private interview rooms. It is a terrible mistake to expect staff to conduct what is often extremely personal business with people in an office with others present and other activities going on. It makes an officer's job more difficult and can easily and unnecessarily anger an already disturbed individual.
These interview rooms, which normally are smaller than two-person offices, must be kept as sterile and sanitized as possible so nothing distracts from the business at hand and, most important, so no objects--ash trays and staplers, for example--can be used as weapons.
2. The waiting area should be some distance from the office's front entrance. You do not want to have a large number of offenders waiting outside the building. Nothing alienates neighbors more than loitering.
Make the waiting area as comfortable as possible. Many people are already uptight when they come to a probation/parole office, and you do not want their first point of exposure to upset them further. If possible, paint the waiting room in a soothing color--shades of blue and green have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety--and furnish it with comfortable furniture. Again, keep the area free of items that could be used as weapons.
The receptionist or the officer of the day should continually observe the waiting room from a secure and protected area. This person should control access to the remainder of the building; a locked, buzzer-controlled door is a good option.
3. The building should have a rear door that is out of the view of the waiting area and the front entrance and leads directly outside. Ideally, this rear exit should open to the parking area. When arrests are made in the office, offenders can be led through this exit to a transporting vehicle. Never attempt to take a person in custody out of the office through an occupied waiting area or other areas in view of visitors or the public. A rear exit also is useful for officers who wish to leave or enter the building without announcing their arrival or departure, thereby avoiding potentially undesirable confrontations.
4. Pay a great deal of attention to security. Not only does the office contain expensive equipment, it houses records that would be irreplaceable if lost and might endanger an offender in the wrong hands.
An alarm system obviously should be activated whenever employees are not present. In addition, the area containing the records--and, in some offices, weapons--should be kept locked and under alarm even during working hours. Code-punched locking devices that unlock the door and disconnect the alarm are a good security system for this area. You also should consider installing an alarm system that allows employees to summon assistance if they are in trouble.
5. Fire prevention measures are extremely important for probation/parole offices. California has had a number of arson attempts on parole offices. The San Bernardino office was destroyed by a fire bomb and the equipment and records were lost. During the post-Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, three parole offices were damaged by fires. When constructing or modifying a building, use highly fire-resistant material with at least two-hour fire doors and a fire/smoke alarm system that functions around the clock. The alarm should report directly to the nearest fire station when the building is uninhabited. It is particularly important to make the rooms that store records fire-resistant.
Before moving into the building, develop detailed procedures for preventing and managing critical incidents. In most locations, state labor policies require procedures for disasters such as fires, earthquakes, bomb threats and, in some locations, even nuclear attacks. These procedures certainly are appropriate and should be part of all employees' orientation. However, the incidents most likely to occur in a probation/parole office--such as an offender becoming violent, an arrest or someone coming into the office intending to harm an employee--are normally not in the office's legally mandated plans.
Along with developing guidelines for handling such incidents, there are steps you can take to reduce the probability that they will occur:
1. Always move people as quickly as possible out of the waiting area. Large numbers of people congregating there for long periods of time can cause problems, particularly if an offender is loud, aggressive or obviously not on good terms with others in the same waiting room.
One absolute rule is: Never try to conduct business with an offender in the waiting area, no matter how brief or impersonal the matter may seem. Nothing is more aggravating to a probationer or parolee than having others hear the details of his or her life.
2. Remove at once anyone who is out of control or causing problems in the waiting area. While this may upset others who have waited longer, it is still preferable to leaving the disruptive person there or, worse yet, trying to resolve the matter there in front of others.
3. The receptionist should be trained to recognize the symptoms of someone under the influence of a controlled substance or who is extremely agitated. When a disruptive person enters the office, the receptionist should immediately contact that person's assigned officer or the officer of the day to get him or her out of the waiting area and under control.
4. Officers should meet their assigned offenders at the door between the waiting area and the office area and escort them to the interview location.
5. During interviews, the door to the interview room should be left open. It is better to sacrifice some privacy in exchange for being under some observation by passersby and being able to call for help should the offender become threatening or violent.
In addition to these procedures, each office should have formal plans to manage crises and arrests. Too often, such plans are not developed until an incident begins. Think of it as the difference between a quarterback making up plays in the huddle and hoping each player remembers what to do and designing plays in advance and practicing them until each player is familiar with his role.
You should develop a broad plan in advance and train staff to implement it when necessary. Then, if you know in advance that a probationer or parolee will be arrested upon his or her arrival or you get word that an agitated offender is en route to the office, you can develop a specific plan that follows the guidelines set forth in the broader plan. The plan should include the who, what, where, when and how of the intervention. More specifically, you should:
1. Quickly review the offender's background. What type of behavior can be anticipated based on the person's criminal and psychological history?
2. Make sure there are adequate personnel available to safely manage the situation. Designate who will participate if an arrest is necessary. It may be advisable to request law enforcement assistance prior to the person's arrival.
3. Notify others in the office, including clerical staff, that an incident may occur so that those not involved will not inadvertently get in the way.
4. If an arrest is imminent, the individual should be quickly escorted to a designated arrest location. This should be a place some distance from the waiting area, preferably close to the rear exit. An interview room is a good location. The same location should be used for all such incidents; that way involved staff know where to go and non-involved staff know where to avoid.
5. Make sure a safe transport vehicle is available. Designate who will drive, who will ride shotgun and the route to be taken to the detention facility, and arrange for the transporting team to report their safe arrival at the destination.
6. Make sure there is closure to the arrest. Family of the arrestee should be notified, property should be properly and legally disposed of--the offender's car should be returned to the family, for example--and unattended children should be properly placed. In California, it was common for parolees who knew or suspected they were going to be arrested to bring their children with them to the office; they felt this would somehow dissuade officers from arresting them. Until we developed procedures for placing children, their technique was very effective.
Obviously, incidents that cannot be reasonably anticipated are the most troublesome and dangerous. It is impossible to know when offenders will lose control in the office or when they will need to be placed in custody because they are under the influence of a controlled substance or have admitted to a crime. When such a crisis occurs, it is imperative that procedures be in place to manage it as safely as possible. In these circumstances there is almost never time to develop a plan on the spot.
A plan for this type of situation should include the following ingredients:
1. You need a system for early crisis identification. As noted earlier, the receptionist should be trained to recognize the indicators of potentially troublesome offenders or other visitors. The receptionist should be instructed to immediately alert either the person's assigned officer or the officer of the day. In most cases, the receptionist should also contact the appropriate law enforcement agency.
2. At least one officer should be present during all working hours. Under no circumstances should ancillary employees be left alone in the office.
3. An alarm system should be established in the office so employees can alert others that a problem is developing or that they need assistance. That system can be as sophisticated as resources and circumstances permit. Electronic alarm systems are available that allow employees to hit a panic button which alerts others of their difficulty and the location of the trouble. These systems are similar to those in many correctional institutions.
On a less sophisticated level, the office can establish a code word that if announced over the telephone or the loudspeaker alerts others to trouble and summons assistance.
Finally, with the cooperation of the nearest law enforcement agency, it is possible to establish a direct telephone line to the agency. The number can be pre-programmed into every telephone so that at the touch of a button a call is made and it gets priority attention by the law enforcement agency's dispatcher.
4. If, in the judgment of the officers involved, an arrest cannot be safely completed, encourage the offender to leave. Steps may then be taken for a later (and safer) apprehension.
By no means is this article intended to be the final word on designing and operating a probation/parole office. Rather, it is meant to stimulate interest in this subject and in turn, lead others in the field to develop a greater body of knowledge regarding this important matter.
Albert G. Smith retired from the California Department of Corrections in 1990 after nearly 32 years in probation and parole. He worked at various times as a field officer, a supervisor and an administrator.…