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Impact of a Mental Health Training Course for Correctional Officers on a Special Housing Unit

by George F. Parker (2009). "Impact of a Mental Health Training Course for Correctional Officers on a Special Housing Unit." Psychiatric Services, 60(5): 640-645.

Twelve years ago, former state corrections director Chase Riveland wrote a report, Supermax Prisons: Overview and General Considerations (1999), for the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) stating that "(i)nsofar as possible, mentally ill inmates should be excluded from extended control facilities (as) much of the regime common to extended control facilities may be unnecessary, and even counter-productive, for this population." Five years later, however, attorney William C. Collins wrote another NIC report, Supermax Prisons and the Constitution: Liability Concerns in the Extended Control Unit (2004), that found mental health conditions in supermax prisons were becoming a major litigation-related issue in some states.

In his report, Collins noted several approaches to supermax prisoners, including screening, monitoring, and the delivery of mental health services, that might help reduce future litigation. More recently, efforts are moving forward not just in the United States, but also in Canada and elsewhere, to establish alternatives to the confinement of mentally ill prisoners in supermax prisons or extended control units. In this article, Dr. George F. Parker of the Department of Psychiatry at Indiana University examines the impact of a 10-hour mental health training program for special housing unit (SHU) correctional officers. This training course, which consisted of five two-hour sessions over the course of five consecutive weeks, was developed through the Indiana chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI-Indiana).

At the time this article was written, the Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC) operated two SHUs. The first of these opened in Westville in 1993, and the second two years later in Carlisle in 1995. The superintendent of the Carlisle SHU, which houses approximately 280 prisoners, asked NAMI-Indiana to conduct mental health training for all of the facility's correctional officers in February and March 2004.

The mental health training course, which integrated NAMI's In Our Own Voice curriculum, covered major categories of psychiatric disorders (e.g., personality, substance abuse, mood, anxiety, and psychotic disorders), the biology of mental illness, mental illness medications and other treatment options, and interactions with mentally ill people. The training itself was held at the DOC's official training site. Correctional officers were divided into two groups, NAMI and DOC training staff worked together, and DOC staff monitored officer attendance, which was mandatory. Officers participated in this training before shift change, after their shift, or on days off (they received appropriate pay and training credits). Officers completed pretests and posttests for each session; videoconference training was developed for a later session for officers who were subsequently hired to work on the unit.

Carlisle's superintendent and SHU administrators prepared regular quality assurance, unit census, and incident reports. The SHU was over-census before and during this training. At one point, mental illness was measured for 62% of prisoners being held at the SHU. "In the nine months after the first training," Dr. Parker reports, "the number of total incidents involving use of force, and incidents of battery by bodily waste on the special housing unit all declined significantly, compared with the nine months before the training. In the nine months after the second training, the total number of incidents and the number of incidents of battery by bodily waste declined significantly, compared with the nine months before the training."

Dr. Parker's conclusions include the following:

  • Correctional officers have a different professional culture than mental health workers, but they can nonetheless play an important role in the quality of treatment provided mentally ill prisoners;
  • Correctional officers typically receive insufficient training on mental health issues;
  • NAMI-Indiana's training reduced the number of assaults and incidents against correctional officers in one of the state's SHUs;
  • Assaults on prisoners by correctional officers also declined in the aftermath of NAMI-Indiana's training; and
  • Correctional officers were significantly satisfied by the training they received.

According to Dr. Parker, "the NAMI team attributed the decline in use of force to improved understanding of the offenders' mental illnesses and to the interacting skills emphasized in the latter part of the training." It was also generally felt by DOC and NAMI staff that the interaction training decreased prisoner anger and frustration.

However, the influence of a number of other matters is less certain:

  • This study had no control group;
  • Changes in the SHUs administration occurred (a new captain was assigned to the unit and sergeants were rotated off the unit);
  • Some offenders were transferred from the SHU to a prison psychiatric facility; and
  • Some officers were arrested for assaultive behavior.

Moreover, information about the circumstances involved in various assaults or incidents were based on summary sheets because of confidentiality and informed consent issues. "As a result," Dr. Parker notes, "it could not be determined whether any given incident involved an inmate with a serious mental illness or a particular correctional officer."

For further information, contact George F. Parker, M.D., Department of Psychiatry, Indiana University School of Medicine, 1111 West 10th Street, Indianapolis, IN 46202, (e-mail)  

Posted Fri, Aug 26 2011 2:17 PM by Tracey Vessels


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