Police Practice: Public Tours of Local Jails

By Wilson, Craig R. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Police Practice: Public Tours of Local Jails


Wilson, Craig R., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


If citizens asked to tour their local jail, what would they be told? Every jurisdiction should consider its policies in view of this valid question. While employees at correctional facilities must ensure institutional security, they still can safely allow some access to members of the public.

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Many jails provide specially organized tours for college students, civic groups, and special-interest organizations. However, not all facilities make provisions for the general public as a whole, thereby foregoing the many benefits that opening jails to citizens offers.

REASONS TO ALLOW PUBLIC TOURS

Officials at some facilities may cite concerns over security, liability, or negative public opinion as reasons for not allowing community members to tour jails. However, these visits seemingly would pose no such threats.

For instance, detention facilities already contain the most dangerous elements of society, so a citizen with a civic interest and no pending criminal matters likely would not jeopardize security. Further, many institutions already receive routine visits without incident by a variety of civilians affiliated with specific programs. And, a clearly defined tour plan, proper notices, and hold-harmless agreements greatly would reduce the potential for liability.(1) Finally, if jail administrators are concerned about negative public opinion, perhaps, this issue warrants an analysis to verify that the facility has adequate resources and performs appropriately.

Openness to the Public

Allowing citizens to obtain knowledge about jail operations is consistent with government standards of openness. Current laws and practices in many jurisdictions require public release of all records not specifically protected by legal authority. (2) The long-standing principle of transparency in government also provides citizens with access to nearly all sessions of federal, state, and local legislative bodies, as well as most types of court proceedings. All government tiers and entities should follow this principle.

The Freedom of Information Act requires federal departments to disclose general documents and records to any person. (3) Some state and local governments have gone even further. For instance, in 2004, California voters amended the state constitution to guarantee the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business. (4) Elected officials, academicians, public-policy experts, newspaper editors, civil libertarians, and watchdog groups all have praised such transparency.

Education of the Community

Law enforcement and corrections agencies enjoy certain protections because of the nature and sensitivity of their work, sometimes resulting in an organization's absence from the public conscience.

Not only do correctional facilities carry out important functions for society, including protection from criminals, care and custody of inmates, and a significant role in the administration of due process rights, but their high operational costs represent a significant burden on the taxpayer. A lack of public knowledge concerning jails can prove not only unfair for the taxpaying citizen but detrimental to the correctional facility.

For instance, an absence of awareness has resulted in most Americans feeling that life in jails does not affect them. (5) Unfortunately, what happens inside these facilities can spill out in a variety of forms, such as violence on the streets, increased gang recruitment and criminal sophistication, wasted and unproductive lives, and, occasionally, lawsuits that cost taxpayers. (6)

Further, the expenses of correctional facilities--including operations and maintenance--impact citizens. For example, Santa Cruz County, California, operates a jail with an average daily population of 600 inmates, and the detention bureau budget is $18.7 million, approximately 5 percent of the general county budget. …

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