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Crisis Intervention Training for Corrections, Now More Than Ever
By Gary York
Published: 08/31/2015

Risk Inmate Jones was the son of an alcoholic father and a mentally retarded mother who abandoned him at the age of five. He was adopted at the age of ten but never recovered from the trauma he experienced from abusive parents. Inmate Jones became depressed and developed a memory disorder. He began drinking and doing drugs and turned to male prostitution to support himself which is how he contracted the HIV virus. He attempted suicide the first time at age sixteen after his girlfriend broke up with him. After several more suicide attempts his hate and anger got him a life sentence for murdering his ex- girlfriend. That is how he ended up in prison. Inmate Jones was now in the care, custody and control of the Department of Corrections. A mentally ill inmate with HIV would now be cared for by correctional officers on a daily basis. Would every officer have the knowledge and the patience to deal with this type of inmate? This is just a scenario I have put together, but how often does this really occur leaving corrections to deal with mentally ill persons? The answer is much too often.

Corrections facilities in the United States hold ten times more mentally ill people than state hospitals. While the public is generally unaware of this statistic, those of us in the business know this and we also know that having to provide care, custody and control for mentally ill inmates is not going to change any time soon. Unfortunately, this problem is not on the list of high priority issues for change within our legislature. Nonetheless, our prison system continues to be the place mentally ill inmates are placed regardless of the fact that many of these inmates should be receiving psychological treatment to address their disorders. As the number of mentally ill inmates increase, so do the chances that correctional officers, prison staff and other inmates will be placed in dangerous situations. This creates a big concern for prison management.
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While I believe anyone would acknowledge that correctional officers should not be expected to act as mental health experts or quasi prison psychologists it is my professional opinion that it is imperative for correctional officers to have a basic understanding of the various mental health issues that exist among inmates. Officers must be trained on how to handle an emergency crisis situation with mentally ill inmates and what “red flags” to look for in order to de escalate and resolve the situation in a manner that maintains safety.
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The intensity of a mentally ill inmate’s behavior and actions that results in a crisis situation can be tremendous, with mood swings that can go from crying to attacking in seconds. Officers need to be fully prepared to immediately step in and take control in these situations, diffuse the inmate’s escalating behavior, and provide safe resolution.
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How does an officer learn to handle these situations? Training and more training! Keeping everyone safe is the main purpose of Crisis Intervention Training (CIT). Officers who wish to become certified should have a minimum of forty hours of CIT with a minimum of two hours CIT annually for recertification.
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Officers need to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of the many types of mental illness. While all inmates are required to follow the rules, persons with mental illness often do not process information the same way a person without this handicap does and those inmates must be approached in a different manner. This is why training is so imperative. Having a good understanding of various types of mental illness and how those inmates affected may react to orders or instructions is mandatory if we, as the providers of care, custody and control, are to succeed at our jobs.
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For example, bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings, wherein a person will exhibit periods of heightened mood followed by a phase in which the person in a state of depression. The elevated mood is known as mania. During mania an individual feels or acts abnormally happy, energetic, or irritable and a person’s need for sleep is usually reduced. During periods of depression there may be a lot of sleeping, crying, accompanied with poor eye contact and a generally negative outlook on life. Schizophrenia has red flag indicators such as unexpected hostility and self inflected wounds. People with schizophrenia also see and hear people who are not there. They may not even hear an officer’s commands among all the other voices in their heads. These are just two examples of the many different types of mental illness we deal with in our prisons, jails and court systems.
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Inmates with anxiety disorder often have an exaggerated sense of fear and tension. They feel like they have to get you before you get them. This can result in a very bad day at work if an officer is not prepared on how to handle this situation. We need to train our officers to “Stop – Think – Respond.” Take time to assess a crisis situation - do not rush right in to diffuse the conflict. Do not try to be a hero; call for backup first and notify a supervisor via radio of the situation. As with all inmates, never turn your back on them, always keep a safe distance, make continued eye to eye contact and give firm, clear instructions using their name often. Do not engage in an argument with them and do not tell them you can see the people they are talking to who are not there. The goal is to engage them in the reality at hand and get them to focus on you and only you so they will follow your instructions. Do not talk over someone who is agitated. Designate one officer to give the inmate verbal instructions. Several officers giving orders at once will only escalate the situation. The most important skill an officer can have is what is known as “verbal de escalation” and of course a good dose of patience.
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In addition to disturbances caused by mentally ill inmates, suicides are of major concern to prison management and this is all the more reason to require Crisis Intervention Training. Almost every mental illness has common denominators when it comes to red flags and some of the things to watch for fall under the category of “suicidal tendencies.” These behaviors indicate what type of person has a stronger possibility of committing suicide. We cannot ignore these behaviors and therefore it is imperative to provide training to ensure officers are able to spot them immediately. It is very important for staff to recognize certain indicators -- the notorious red flags – that an inmate is exhibiting in order to potentially thwart a suicide attempt. Suicide prevention training is a must and should be incorporated in conjunction with Crisis Intervention Training.
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If an officer can protect a mentally ill inmate from harming him or herself while protecting other prison staff from injury, everyone can say, “Job well done!” and the officer and prison management looks great in the eyes of the public. However, if a mentally ill inmate should die while under the care and supervision of the prison, then the media and certain people in our society are certain to cast a harsh light on those responsible for management of the prison. In order to prevent an officer’s loss of job, a civil suit or, even worse, possible criminal charges, be sure to spend time training our prison staff well in the area of handling inmates with mental illness.
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It is of great importance that we keep our staff safe so they can go home alive and well at the end of the day. If staff is educated on the signs of mental illness and are vigilant in their awareness during the course of their duties then the chances that an officer will be unharmed will greatly increase.
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If your agency does not have a program already implemented for Crisis Intervention Training, contact agencies that do have this type of training program to find out what training tools they are using. The best thing you can do is to get started setting up a class at your facility. We are all on the same team so sharing the curriculum should not be a problem. Certified training instructors in this area may even be willing to assist with the training.
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Officers must be prepared for every situation and inmates who have mental illnesses pose their own unique set of problems that must be dealt with on a daily basis. Prison management has a responsibility to provide the tools and training necessary to ensure success in handling these potentially dangerous crisis situations. Having access to training will increase an officer’s knowledge and awareness of our surroundings and inmate behaviors which in turn will help officers make better decisions. We owe it to our officers to provide this training.
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Gary York is a retired Senior Prison Inspector and is an Ethics and Crisis Intervention Instructor. He is also the author of the books "Corruption Behind Bars" and "Inside the Inner Circle".


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