I have been a corrections officer with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for the past 10 years. Since 2013, I have been working in Muncy, PA at one of the state’s two female prisons, specifically in the mental health unit and the infirmary. I am also a trainer for our system’s Crisis Intervention Team as well as a Mental Health First Aid instructor.
In my 10 years as a corrections officer, I have witnessed many changes. The biggest change has been in our approach to dealing with inmates who have a mental health diagnosis. Every member of my department has now completed Mental Health First Aid training.
Working in the mental health unit of a state correctional institution is stressful and challenging at times. Mental Health First Aid training has changed the way we do our job.
In the past, we might not have recognized the signs of a mental health crisis – even within the mental health unit. An inmate that refused to cooperate with instructions may have been seen as simply being non-compliant—making a conscious choice not to follow an order. An inmate that is hallucinating or experiencing psychosis, for example, may not be in a position to follow orders. But we were not trained to see it that way. Instead, non-compliance became a disciplinary issue.
Today, because of our Mental Health First Aid training, we respond very differently. Rather than using an authoritative, “command and control” style with an inmate experiencing a mental health crisis, we begin with a more compassionate and empathetic approach. Our officers are trained to tell the difference between non-compliance and an inmate who cannot follow orders because they are in crisis. We let them know we understand that they may not be able to control themselves. We listen more so that we can understand what is happening. We de-escalate the situation so they do not feel threatened. Doing so reduces the need for force, which is better for everyone – inmates and corrections officers.
Corrections facilities are not factories and we cannot deal with people in a one-size-fits all, black and white manner. We have to work with inmates as individuals. And for those with mental health issues, we are part of their treatment. We observe them, we interact with them, we see changes in their behavior and can report those changes to the treatment team quickly so they have a complete picture of the inmate’s health. Part of our job is to have compassion and empathy, something you might not expect from a corrections officer. But our goal is to help people receive the necessary treatment while they are in our care and complete their service in a timely way so they can get out. Mental Health First Aid has given us important tools – how to talk, how to stand, what questions to ask, how to listen, how to evaluate a situation – and with those tools we can do our job better while keeping everyone safe.
Mental Health First Aid also helps us as individuals. Many corrections officers are military veterans. I served for 13 years as an active duty Marine with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and I was deployed to Afghanistan. When I came home, I went back to work very quickly, without much time to decompress and think about what I experienced during my deployment. This is true for a lot of my peers. We jump back into civilian life and we put our problems on the back burner. With Mental Health First Aid training, we are better equipped to help each other. This job is tough, no doubt about it. And we are a family, we take care of each other and when one of my colleagues is suffering, I know how to help them. I know how important it is to tell them they are not alone and that it’s okay to ask for help.
I wish that every corrections officer could receive Mental Health First Aid training. I believe that our corrections system would be better because of it – the inmates would benefit, the officers would benefit and ultimately our communities would benefit.