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Handling Jail Special Populations: A Thumbnail Training Guide
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 02/22/2016

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Jail correctional officers (COs) must be “jacks of all trades”-being able to multi task and handle many different types of inmates at one time. During a shift, a jail officer may handle anything from a suicide to a mentally disordered inmate to one acting up inside a segregation unit. It is no wonder that many veteran jail officers, when talking about their careers, agree that no two days are alike-and one never knows what type of inmate he or she will be dealing with at any given time.

Recently, there has been much more attention paid by trainers, the media, researchers and trainers to special populations inside our nation’s correctional facilities. Special populations include mentally disordered inmates, female inmates, mature/elderly inmates, minorities and foreign inmates, youthful offenders and juveniles, gangs, inmates with sexual identity issues and inmates in segregation or isolation. Times have changed-we have come a long way in the last 50 years.

In jail officer training, more material and information are being included in officer in service training and basic training. Due to lawsuits and the development of corrections standards, corrections personnel recognize the sobering fact that mismanaging special inmate populations can result in injuries, death and litigation. If found liable, the agency may have to pay out money-a lot of money. Officers can find themselves out of a job, facing criminal charges or civil lawsuits. But-there should be no ‘rush to judgment’. Correctional officers have a tough job regarding the safe custody of special population inmates. It is easy to accuse COs of negligence and not properly doing their jobs-but proving it and winning a lawsuit is another matter. COs deserve their day in court with fair hearings-just like the lawbreakers that they keep locked up.

I teach an in service jail correctional officer training class throughout Virginia-from a jail veteran and practitioner standpoint. After going through statistics and incidents about special population inmates, I close at the end of the day with 13 common sense guidelines to effectively manage special population inmates inside a correctional facility. So-without further fanfare-let’s take a look:
  • Proper handling of special management inmates requires a mindset of “expect the unexpected”.
    Just because an inmate is locked away in a segregation unit does not mean you are safe when you open the cell door. There is a reason why that inmate is locked away. Just because things seem calm does not guarantee that events won’t suddenly change in the next 30 seconds. Mentally ill inmates can be unpredictable; a suicidal inmate can tell you that he is fine and try to hang himself. Your gut-and those little hairs standing up on the back of your neck, combined with your experience-are your best safeguards.
  • The problems of these inmates can affect your safety and also their well-being.
    In other words-their problems can give you problems. Inmates who are seriously mentally ill, such as suffering from paranoia may ‘lash out’ at you. Severely mentally ill inmates can resist you when you are trying to perform what you think are routine duties, such as taking them to the showers or transporting them to court or to a mental health facility. Youthful offenders-those in their teens or juveniles confined in adult jails may be so immature that they engage in fights or assaults on staff. In these two examples, COs may be forced to use force, and in some cases injuries to inmates and staff can happen.
  • Proper supervision means that you are in a ‘people profession’. If you cannot accept that-please leave.
    Correctional officers should view all inmates as people, and strive to treat them with basic human dignity. If some COs get amusement out of harassing mentally ill inmates, for example, or ignoring inmates on segregation-they should do the profession a favor and get out of the field.
  • Special management inmates must be afforded due process & protection from cruel & unusual punishment.
    Special needs inmates, especially those who may be vulnerable to attack and harassment from other inmates must be protected. That means making the best classification decisions possible with the most accurate information and staff input and perspectives. For example, you are faced on where to house a frail inmate in his 70’s. He should not be housed with younger, volatile and immature inmates. Inmates in segregation must have their cases reviewed by staff to ascertain if there is a continuing need for segregation, and if there are any problems such as physical and mental deterioration.
  • Special management inmates must be afforded proper medical and mental health care.
    Pregnant female inmates, mentally ill inmates, suicidal inmates and elderly inmates-these are a representation of special needs inmates. They are to receive good medical and mental health care, like all inmates.
  • Handling special management inmates takes time, concern, empathy and teamwork.
    Dealing with mentally ill inmates or suicidal inmates takes time. The same is true of inmates with dementia or ones that have cultural or language barriers. Be patient and empathetic. Impatience and a lack of concern shown by a CO may heighten the inmate’s anxiety. Regarding inmates in segregation or isolation, think about what they may be going through-limited or no social contact, no television, staring at the same walls hour after hour, etc. Asking how they are doing may make it tolerable. But always think safety and guard against being too sympathetic and being manipulated. Teamwork means working with and taking the advice of medical staff and mental health staff as well as passing along of crucial information between squads or shifts.
  • No one expects you to be an expert, but take action when things are ‘not quite right’.
    You have an inmate in tears-saying that he is not suicidal. You just booked in an inmate who is talking strangely to himself. You observe that another inmate in population who has been social with other inmates now sits and stares all day, never talking. You are not a qualified mental health professional-but your ‘gut’ says something is not right. Contact mental health and medical staff as well as your supervisor for further action and housing.
  • Remember that for many of these inmates, jail is traumatic and they many not handle it well.
    It is important that COs do not generalize and not view all offenders as inmates who readily adjust to incarceration. Even repeat offenders experience anxiety or depression, just as ‘first timers’ do. They may think “I’m back again-what will happen to me this time?” Or-a female is worried about her children, a mentally ill offender is deteriorating rapidly and poses a danger. An elderly offender has just been disowned by the family or an inmate faced with being locked up really will kill herself this time in.
  • Remember that the courts are very concerned with the proper care and handling of special management inmates.
    Corrections trainers now have a ‘gold mine’ of information thanks to the media, correctional organizations and the internet. An effective training tool would be to search for court cases dealing with inmate management and discuss them in training sessions, including roll calls. Recent court cases have examined inmate medical care, suicide and placement of inmates in segregation or isolation.
  • When in doubt, err on the side of caution and let qualified staff step in and do their jobs.
    A good rule to follow-if what you observe about an inmate and your experience leads you to think that this inmate may need special attention-get the qualified staff and supervisors involved.
  • Be prepared to answer for your actions; follow policies and procedures.
    Policies and procedures must be followed. They are there for the welfare of the inmate and also to protect you. Always keep in the back of your mind that with special needs inmates, many ‘players’ will ask you to explain your actions, including supervisors, attorneys, the courts-and let’s not forget internal affairs. Following policies and procedures gives you a solid foundation.
  • Document…Document…DOCUMENT!!!!!!
    The saying “If it was not written down, then it did not happen” is not just a cliché. It’s true-take the time, as tired and as busy that you are-to fill out the special housing logs or write reports. A year later-if the jail is sued about the handling of an inmate-you will be glad that your report or log is retrieved from a dusty old file box in storage. Also-it’s good to keep notes-they refresh your memory. Finally-document clearly and legibly.
    And now my personal favorite:
  • Jail is a closed environment. When in doubt…. ASK A SUPERVISOR. (There is always one around).
    In any correctional facility, there is no such thing as a stupid question about the handling of special needs inmates. Supervisors wear the stripes, the bars, the oak leaves and the eagles on their uniforms. They have been promoted because they show good thought, maturity and leadership. Ask them for direction and it is true-there are always supervisors around the facility.
Reference: In Service Jail Seminar: Managing Special Populations, by Gary F. Cornelius, February 2015.

Corrections.com author, Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. He conducts corrections in service training sessions and has taught corrections classes at George Mason University since 1986. Gary’s books include The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition (2009) from the American Correctional Association and The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Second Edition (2010) from Carolina Academic Press.

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