Special Needs Inmates: Managing the Seriously Mentally Ill in Corrections

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In recent decades, jails and correctional facilities have begun housing an increasingly diverse population with a unique set of needs. Often these needs place inmates at risk of being hurt by others or hurting themselves and others. So, what is the solution? How can correctional officers fulfill their role of keeping inmates safe while considering federal and state regulations surrounding traditional solutions like segregation? “Just lock them down” isn’t a viable solution anymore.

Special management inmates include seriously mentally ill inmates, youthful or juvenile offenders, mature or elderly inmates, inmates with sexual identity issues, ethnic minorities, females, gang members and more. There are many ways to classify these inmates and awareness of each group and their needs is crucial to adequately protecting them during incarceration. Giving inmates dignity, respect, due process and protection are critical to a functioning and effective correctional facility.

Seriously mentally ill inmates are one of the highest populations of special management inmates in corrections today. Approximately 15% of male inmates and 30% of female inmates suffer from severe mental health conditions (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Understanding how to successfully manage the seriously mentally ill in corrections is vital for all officers: You must know how jail can potentially exacerbate mental health problems, how to communicate with special needs inmates and the importance of advocating for those who struggle to or cannot advocate for themselves.

In a recent webinar, corrections experts Gary Cornelius, Mark Chamberlain and Chris Munley addressed the issue of managing seriously mentally ill inmates. Following are some critical points they covered.

Recognizing Seriously Mentally Ill Inmates

Recognition of mental health issues in inmates begins at intake. While the initial screening is critical, the importance of follow-ups should not be understated. Officers should revisit the topic to ensure the inmate is processing and perceiving reality accurately – and if not, refer them to the appropriate mental health services or take other necessary action. Assessment of inmates for mental health issues needs to be an ongoing process throughout incarceration.

Key signs and symptoms officers should be mindful of in all inmates to determine if special management is necessary include (Bureau of Justice Statistics):

  • Persistent anger or irritability
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
  • Diminished ability to concentrate or think

It’s important to remember mentally ill inmates often have an altered perception of reality. As correctional officers, part of your efforts should be to help improve their perception (or at least avoid making it worse) and make them feel safe. The average inmate knows where they are and how the system works, but seriously mentally inmates do not always operate with the same awareness.

Risks to Inmates’ Well-Being

Correctional facilities have become the de-facto mental health institutions of our society. Law enforcement officers are called to respond to individuals experiencing mental health crises, often leading the seriously mentally ill to be booked into county jails. Correctional officers must have a mindset of constant preparedness – you never know who will come into your jail and what needs they will have.

Interactions with mentally ill inmates have become an almost daily occurrence for many officers. Knowing how to approach, manage and protect these individuals results in safer, more efficient and more effective facilities.

Because the authoritarian and de-humanizing nature of jails can often exacerbate existing mental health issues in inmates, significant attention must be paid to managing the mentally ill in corrections. Inmates with severe mental health problems may be unable to effectively understand or adhere to the rules, rendering discipline and segregation largely ineffective. Seriously mentally ill inmates are not good self-advocates: They struggle to ask for medicine or explain and seek help when something is wrong. Correctional officers must be aware of this and advocate for them to get the treatment they need in order to protect them and others.

Managing Seriously Mentally Ill Inmates

When preparing for an encounter or managing seriously mentally ill inmates in corrections, especially during a mental health crisis, there are a few key steps to follow:

  1. Stay calm (so you can accurately analyze the situation)
  2. Focus yourself and your attention
  3. Plan an intervention strategy

Once you’ve taken these steps, begin executing the plan by engaging with the inmate. This involves attempting to calm them down, to gain an understanding of what they are perceiving and to build a rapport with them. As you cultivate this relationship at each additional contact, you can better understand them, what makes them feel safe and how to approach them. Don’t hesitate to tap other people for assistance, too. A chaplain, a volunteer or another inmate may have a relationship with the inmate that can help you connect more effectively and build trust.

Managing seriously mentally ill and other special needs inmates is an ongoing challenge within corrections. Correctional officers are not mental health providers, but having the tools to adequately handle these inmates is crucial. Interactions with mentally ill inmates have become an almost daily occurrence for many officers. Knowing how to approach, manage and protect these individuals results in safer, more efficient and more effective facilities.

Want to learn more about other special needs inmates? Check out our on-demand webinar, “Special Management Inmates: Reducing Risk & Enhancing Safety,” with corrections experts Gary Cornelius, Mark Chamberlain and Chris Munley.

Lexipol Team

Lexipol provides public safety and local government with solutions that combine the impact of information with the power of technology. We serve more than 2 million first responders and local government officials with policies, training, grant assistance and news and analysis.

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