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Combatting the MacGyver Effect

Consider Consequences of Long-Term Band-Aiding

By Tate McCotter, Executive Director
National Institute for Jail Operations

Perhaps the title may be aged, but the analogy fits too well to not be incorporated given the current circumstances in our correctional profession.  For those unfamiliar with the 1985-1992 television series, the star of the show was Angus ‘Mac’ MacGyver, a secret agent action-adventure troubleshooter who used his scientific knowledge and training to overcome difficult situations and resolve unexpected obstacles.1  Played by Richard Dean Anderson, MacGyver’s creativity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness became his trademark and his eponymic name has since been associated with those characteristics as the ‘MacGyver Effect.”  Exemplified in one episode, MacGyver quips “the tighter your plan the more likely you are to run into something… unpredictable.”2  MacGyver could make miracles happen with a simple paperclip, a piece of duct tape, and a stick of chewing gum in his back pocket.  The term “MacGyver” is now universally recognized as a transitive verb, defined by Oxford Dictionary “to make or repair (an object) in an improvised or inventive way, making use of whatever items are at hand.”3  In jails and prisons, “MacGyvers” are abundant.

The ability to apply and use everyday things innovatively to create solutions to problems and overcome obstacles thrown into the path of detention officers is certainly not exclusive to the corrections profession, but those who work in corrections facilities are undoubtedly some of the best in the business.  This isn’t because they are fans of the television series.  Unfortunately, this skill developed out of necessity.  Historically, jails and prisons have long been short-staffed and underfunded, resulting in breaks, gaps, holes, and deficiencies in equipment, procedures, and operational processes.  Unlike the private sector, detention facilities don’t simply “shut down” and must necessarily remain open.  Regardless of funding and staffing deficiencies, the show must go on.  How do administrators carry on when they know circumstances and resources are inadequate to run a constitutionally safe facility?  They commonly resort to promulgate rhetoric like any good leader would, preaching by example the principles of “don’t complain,” “make do with what you got,” and just persevere through these non-ideal circumstances because “it is part of the job.”

This characteristic comes from an inherent sense of duty possessed by many officers to make a significant and positive impact in their communities, with inmates, their families, and among staff.  This has never been about money, as the profession can readily attest!  They persevere because of genuine care for others.  Creative MacGyver fixes and band-aids have been deployed in facilities across the United States for decades.  The tactic has kept doors open; however, the approach has inadvertently resulted in negative consequences.  We may be our worst enemy when it comes to the deployment of MacGyver methodology.


Negative Consequences of Long-Term Band-Aids.

Considering the enormous challenges facilities have faced over the last few years, this profession has been resilient and remarkably successful in preventing adverse events given the limited resources.  However, historical lessons reflect 100% prevention isn’t a reality given the environment.  Obviously not all those incarcerated follow the rules consistently, especially when considering the increased population of those with mental illness.  There is no such thing as a “model inmate” anymore.  Every person comes with unique circumstances and backgrounds.  This exacerbates operational custody, care, and control issues officers face daily. No matter how exceptional an administration and its officers perform, inadequate funding, understaffing, and limited resources will eventually contribute to the likelihood of an adverse event, unless the facility shuts doors altogether.4   Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in proving this statement, opined “Prisons are necessarily dangerous places; they house society’s most antisocial and violent people in close proximity with one another. Regrettably, “[s]ome level of brutality and sexual aggression among [inmates] is inevitable no matter what the guards do . . . unless all inmates are locked in their cells 24 hours a day and sedated.”5

Consider the ramifications of the MacGyver Effect with current staffing levels.  While anti-law enforcement sentiment has increased in the last year, agencies have been experiencing a decline in qualified applications for many years.  Last year, Prison Legal News highlighted all fifty states have reported staffing shortages since 2017.6  In conducting training across the country, most agencies report staffing shortages are so widespread now they are operating daily with skeleton staffing levels.7  Skeleton staffing refers to a state where a minimum number of officers are on duty to simply function to provide inmates bare bone constitutional necessities under exigent circumstances until staffing levels can resume at a normal operating level.  As an example, several Idaho officers recently told legislators they had been working 16-hour shifts, multiple times a week.  In one facility, a corrections lieutenant stated,  “18 staffers in one shift were expected to manage 2,099 inmates – a ratio of 116 inmates per officer.”8   There is no amount of MacGyver duct tape or super glue that can adequately patch that staffing gap.  But officials do their best and try every day.  Here are some of the obvious negative results of skeleton staffing:

  • More lockdown has led to frustration and fights within inmate populations, resulting in increased suicides, inmate-on-inmate, inmate-on-staff assaults, and litigation.9   In one Pennsylvania county jail, 22 inmates are suing because of regularity of lockdown due to staffing shortages.10
  • Less staff means decreased monitoring, observation time, and availability to detect, mitigate, and respond to potential suicides, assaults, and other critical emergencies.11
  • Cancelled or decreased inmate access to educational, treatment, and life skills programming, visitation, and other activities considered extremely valuable to reduce recidivism and promote inmate morale. 12

  • Increased failure to protect, deliberate indifference lawsuits, and other staff-related litigation costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.13
  • Supervisors are required to fill line level shifts rather than perform supervisory duties, potentially neglecting policy and procedure updates, staff performance reviews, inmate disciplinary hearings, grievance responses, and other responsibilities that can prove costly or litigious.14 This MacGyver practice may extend beyond supervisory positions.  Federal prisons report they are using cooks and nurses in some instances to fill open security officer vacancies on shifts.15
  • Being short staffed, standard proactive operational practices such as shakedowns, contraband control, random and routine searches of the perimeter, common areas, support facilities, and housing areas, ongoing self-audits, and other functions may not be performed at all or on a limited or scaled-back basis.16
  • Staff training has been limited or cancelled altogether (i.e., time constraints, overtime costs).17 This is especially concerning given the turnover and lack of experience amongst correctional officers. In many institutions, inmates have more institutional knowledge than the officers.
  • Low morale and increased stress among corrections officers has led to staff performance issues, burnout, resignation, mental health issues, and suicide.18

Kansas State Representative John Rubin emphasized the dangers of staffing shortages specifically. “If we don’t have enough staff, and if the staff we have is young and unexperienced, and they are disproportionately overworked because they are understaffed — that combination is a recipe for, if not disaster, then for a serious dangerous incident.” 19 Skeleton staffing was never intended to be implemented as a long-term solution, yet that is exactly what has happened in detention and correctional facilities and the MacGyver effect keeps the practice going with no end in sight for many facilities.

The New Mexico Penitentiary riot, recognized as one of the deadliest in United States history, resulted in thirty-three inmate deaths, hundreds of prisoners injured, and seven officers raped and beaten.  Inmates cited poor living conditions, overcrowding, and insufficient programming as primary factors which instigated the riot.20 David Sanchez, an officer at that time who recently retired as a state prison administrator, spoke about the similarities with current staffing shortages and overcrowding conditions.  Addressing today’s environment, he stated “It is very unsafe… the officers are fatigued, they are exhausted.  They are on edge.”21   In their 2020 annual report, the National Police Foundation concluded 86% of agencies were experiencing staffing shortages.  In response, they advised administrators as a recommended step to “Prepare for the extreme; hope it does not happen.”22 Experienced officers know this is not a question of if but rather when.  MacGyvering is not a long-term fix.  It cannot sustain itself.

The MacGyver Effect is pervasive throughout corrections facilities and many have become accustomed to making do with less.  Band-aids have long been applied.  The truth is most facilities will not get the body scanner they need anytime soon.  Meeting adequate staffing levels may be delayed because of hiring moratoriums, wages, or other economic factors.   The floor in the kitchen may not be replaced quickly and the ADA compliant shower may be put off until the next fiscal year.   What options do jail administrations have to address these types of challenges?

  1. Keep using the MacGyver band-aid approach and hope for the best. Understand the problems will not be fully resolved, risk, liability, and litigation may occur.  In short, keep status quo and “ride it out.”
  2. Take a proactive, legal-based approach.
    1. Do not go silent. Your voice may be the only advocate for the jail, the staff, and the inmates.
    2. If something can be fixed or addressed internally, do it, then document what was accomplished. Some solutions may not require funding or outside assistance.  This proactive approach and documentation reflects best efforts to mitigate deliberate indifference claims.
    3. Honestly and openly communicate the needs of the jail to stakeholders. Do not put lipstick on the pig.  If what needs attention requires outside assistance or appropriated money or funding, ask for it.  A need or shortcoming does not poorly represent the administration.  It is an honest report of what is under the hood, not a reflection of poor effort or incompetent staff.  It reflects an agency’s best efforts to resolve issues which could not be adequately achieved with current resources (i.e., no training budget, staffing shortages, replacing equipment, physical facility deficiencies).
    4. Inform officials who are financially and administratively responsible for the operation of the jail of the increasing safety and security risks and potential liability when expressed needs are not met. Often during this process, jail officials can fail to articulate the legal ramifications associated with the need.  Jail administrators should tie in case law and legal requirements to their requests so that the justification is based on meeting what the law requires to run a constitutionally safe facility.


Corrections administrators and sheriffs cannot duct tape everything and expect continued success in avoiding a lawsuit or adverse event.  The MacGyver Effect was meant to be applied as a temporary fix to an immediate problem, not a long-term solution.  As administrators continue to man the fort and provide the best custody and care possible, despite the lack of resources, they must inform and educate all stakeholders involved of the dire situation, relying on the law to defend those requests. The MacGyver Effect must not be allowed to become the new norm in running a corrections facility. 


  1. Kenneth Chisholm ( (1985, September 29). MacGyver (TV Series 1985, 1992). IMDb. .
  2. Smithee A: MacGyver: “The Heist“. Series 1; Episode 5. MacGyver. United States: Paramount Pictures, Aired 3 November 1985.
  3. Oxford University Press (OUP). (n.d.). MacGyver. Lexico.Com. Retrieved August 25, 2021, from
  4. Ceballos, A. (2021, April 1). Four Florida prisons could close as lawmakers consider $140 million in cuts. Tampa Bay Times.
  5. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 858-859 (1994), quoting McGill v. Duckworth, 944 F. 2d 344, 348 (CA7 1991) (Thomas, J., concurring).
  6. Sonenstein, B. (2020, April 1). All 50 States Report Prison Understaffing | Prison Legal News. Prisonlegalnews.Org.
  7. McCotter, T. (2021, Jan-Aug). Agency Staffing Survey. WSSA, JAILCON training events. National Institute for Jail Operations.
  8. Norimine, H. (2021, August 18). Female staffer beaten by inmate in Idaho Department of Correction prison south of Boise. Idahostateman.Com.
  9. Melamed, S. (2021, August 26). ‘We need help’: Video, reports depict violence and ‘riots’ at Philadelphia jails. Https://Www.Inquirer.Com.
  10. Miller, R. (2021a, August 19). 22 Lehigh County Jail inmates sue over lockdowns, COVID infections. Lehighvalleylive.
  11. See for example, US v. AL Department of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (N.D. AL), Case No. 2:20-cv-01971 (Dec 2020).
  12. TVCC lays off 19 as state prison system suspends education programs. (2020, April 14). Malheur Enterprise.
  13. Melamed, S. (2021a, June 23). In an unusual legal settlement, Philly jails to pay out $125,000 to community bail funds. Https://Www.Inquirer.Com.
  14. See Cortes-Quinones v. Jimenez-Nettleship, 773 F.2d 10 (1st Cir. 1985); McKinnon v. City of Berwyn, 750 F.2d 1383, 1391 (7th Cir. 1984); Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Porter, 659 F.2d 306 (3rd Cir. 1981); Kostka v. Hogg, 560 F.2d 37 (Mass App. Ct) 1977); Downs v. Department of Welfare, 368 F.Supp. 454, 464 (E.D. Pa. 1973); see also NIJO Legal-Based Jail Guidelines B01.03.01 Enforce Policy and Procedure Requirements.
  15. The Associated Press. (2021, May 21). Federal prisons forced to use cooks, nurses to guard inmates due to staff shortages. NBC News.
  16. See NIJO Legal-Based Jail Guideline I03.02.02 (Internal Audits and Inspections).
  17. City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 390 n.10 (1989); see also NIJO Legal-Based Jail Guidelines B04.01.02 (Annual Training Plan).
  18. Paul Egan, Detroit Free Press. (2019, May 13). Michigan prison agency wants to reduce stress, suicide among corrections officers. Detroit Free Press.
  19. Many States Face Dire Shortage of Prison Guards. (2016, March 1). The Pew Charitable Trusts.
  20. KOB TV. (2020, February 17). 40 years later: Former inmate reflects on infamous prison riot in Santa Fe. YouTube.
  21. Many States Face Dire Shortage of Prison Guards. (2016, March 1). The Pew Charitable Trusts.
  22. National Police Foundation. (2021, February 26). 2020 Annual Repor


The National Institute for Jail Operations (NIJO) was formed in 2011 as the primary resource dedicated to serve those that operate jails, detention, and correctional facilities. Recognizing the enormous liability and increasing litigation facing administrators, NIJO provides a compilation of legal-based resources and information for agencies to make facilities safer and more secure, proactively defend against frivolous litigation, and protect against adverse publicity and liability.  If you have questions about a specific training topic or are looking for more information on training, don’t hesitate to ask. Contact info: