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Archive for March, 2011

When No Doesn’t Mean No…..Teamwork Determines the Truth

March 7th, 2011

Author’s note:  The following blog is by Timothy P. Manley, MSW, LCSW, Forensic Social Worker in the Mental Health Unit of the Fairfax  County (VA) Adult Detention Center. 

Teamwork is important in any correctional facility…it saves lives and keeps everyone safe.  Tim addresses this important topic in the following article, and I extend to him my sincere thanks for this great contribution.  GFC

We have all heard it.  No means no.  We heard it as children when we asked our parents a second or third time for permission for something we hoped to have or do.  A prized toy found at the check out counter, a more favorable extension to a curfew, the use of the family car. We now likely use the statement ourselves with anyone who does not want to accept our negative response.  It is our final answer. No means no!

There is, however, a very dangerous occasion when no does not necessarily mean no.  I was reminded of that recently when interviewing an inmate who had been referred to our jail mental health section by a concerned family member’s telephone call.  The caller had spoken with her brother, an inmate, who, having been found guilty, was likely to receive a long sentence.  The family had become concerned about his level of self-risk. He had not made any direct statements that evening, but they recalled a comment made long before his arrest that if he was to serve a prison sentence he would rather kill himself.  They asked us to assess him for suicide risk.

While I was interviewing the inmate, his general demeanor and responses to all my questions did not suggest risk.  When he was directly asked, he said no to any thoughts of suicide or self-harm. He minimized the statement recalled by his family, and frankly presented himself as one who considered suicide the furthest thing from his mind. While his nonchalant attitude did cause me suspicion, the inmate gave me no overt indication that he was suicidal.

That is when the value of staff communication and teamwork worked together in preventing a tragedy.  When I called for the inmate to meet with me, I had informed the post sergeant of the family’s concern. While I was completing my interview, the sergeant, who, after sending the inmate, had instigated a complete cell search and had her deputies look through the inmate’s property.  Within his property, the deputies found a suicide letter written in the inmate’s hand and directed to his family.  The same family, the inmate had assured me, was the very reason he would never harm himself.  Had it not been for teamwork and the thorough search by the confinement staff, our attempt to keep this young man safe would have been in vain. 

This incident reminded me of some things worth noting.

First and foremost is that there is no room for the lone expert in the field of corrections.  We all come into this line of work with various levels of expertise and corrections works best when all professions are involved and respected. 

All too often, I have heard the statement, “I’m no mental health expert, but…” Many of the skills used by those in corrections and law enforcement are very similar to the work of the mental health staff.  Observe, listen, and respond.  Relatively, the mental health staff spends a brief amount of time with the inmate while a correctional officer is observing hours of the inmate’s life.  These observations include his or her interactions with other inmates, the demeanor before and after court and his or her behavior before and after phone calls to the outside world.  That information when communicated is gold to the mental health professional.

Another is the importance of professional follow through. While the inmate was referred to the “mental health expert”, that did not stop the confinement staff from using their professional expertise, investigating the situation fully. Custody staff has the ability to search cells and actually enter into that part of the inmate’s world that can easily be hidden during a mental health interview.  A person bent on self-destruction will often deny even the suicidal thought, all the while preparing to act in the quiet of their cell.  It never hurts to ask ourselves: “did I use every resource available in gathering the information that I will use to make my decision?”

That said, the inmate’s simple denial of suicide is not a surety that the person is safe. When there is a concern for safety, a negative response to the question of self-harm should always be challenged.  

Finally, there is never enough good communication. Just when we are getting tired of passing on the information someone is just getting the message.

What is most important to remember, no matter your professional training, is that we are a team inside the jail.  None of the professionals can be independently successful and one should not sell short others, or abdicate their own skills.  It is only in teamwork that we can get the truth and be successful.  Plautus, a Roman writer living before the Common Era, said it concisely, “No man is wise enough by himself.”

Gary Cornelius Uncategorized