Mental illness training in SCDC showing early benefits

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Sgt. Travis Reese feels much more comfortable going to work as a South Carolina corrections officer now.

"I'm at ease now," he said.

Reese was one of 26 South Carolina corrections officers who underwent training for the Crisis Intervention Team two weeks ago.

"Honestly, this training was the best thing the agency could have done," Reese said.

The training was offered through the National Institute of Corrections as part of the mediation agreement resulting from a lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Corrections regarding its treatment of mentally ill inmates.

"We've done several things that have come out of the mediation," Director of SCDC Bryan Stirling said. "We're still continuing to talk. We're meeting pretty regularly about where we need to go with the lawsuit."

Sgt. Reese, who works at the prison system's psychiatric center, says the training helped him immensely.

"It helped me to be patient with the inmates," he said. "Try to figure out what's their problem, what they need. Most of the time these inmates just want to be heard and it's the simple things that we can do for them to help them get out of their crisis."

"I need to be able to help them solve their problem instead of just pushing their problem on someone else," he said.

Within days of completing the training, Reese used what he learned to talk an inmate threatening to swallow a razor blade to surrender it to officers.

"I run totally different. I know how to talk to the inmates," he said.

"They really didn't know what to do with a mentally ill inmate," Lt. Efrem Jennings said. "It was an eye-opener for everyone. We really needed that training."

"I've already used it two or three times within my unit," he said. "The department is forever changing. With this change, it's really going to help us out."

Corrections officers who went through the training now have patches identifying them on the Crisis Intervention Team.

"We have this patch on us and they recognize it and they'll step back and let us do our job first before they even interfere," Jennings said.

SCDC is the first agency to participate in the partnership with the NIC, which will introduce the program to prison systems nationwide.

"This is the beginning of a lot of training," SCDC Spokesperson Stephanie Givens said.

Crisis Intervention Team officers will undergo additional training so they can teach other corrections officers what they know.

"I have much better results, much more results and a lot less violent results," officer  John McClean said.

McClean is an Iraq War veteran who suffers from PTSD.

"It gives me a perspective of what a mental illness is," he said. "Patience is the key in dealing with any mental illness, including PTSD."

"Prior to the training it was very hard to understand a mental health patient, where they're coming from, the logic that they use, which a lot of times is very different than a normal person would use in their thinking and logic," McClean said.

"Not having to use force is much better," he said. "Knowing that I don't have to come in and fight, knowing that I don't have to come in and expect an inmate who is not mentally stable, that I may not realize what he might be going through, I feel I have the ability and skills to communicate and talk an inmate down and avoid any injuries to both the inmate and staff."

"Coming to prison is not a good solution for anybody," Stirling said. "It just exacerbates the mental health issues and ratchets it up."

The department of corrections also is adding a Self-Injurious Behavior unit: a self-contained, 23-bed unit with three dedicated counselors, psychiatrist and clinical assistant. It opens later this month.

The South Carolina chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness has a contract to provide two additional training sessions later this year.

"It's for officer safety, it's for inmate safety and it's at a cost savings for the state," Stirling said.

"They're learning now that some of these folks that come to prison probably shouldn't be here because they act up and whoever has the interaction with them on the street is not sure how to interact with them so it escalates."

"This is part of the solution," Stirling said.

"We are pleased with the Department's efforts toprovide training to help its officers improve their understanding ofindividuals with mental illness," attorney Stuart Andrews said. "It's an importantstep. But it's far short of what's needed."

Andrews represents the plaintiffs in the suit. But he says more needs to be done from the legislative level.

"Without the funding required to hire additional mentalhealth professionals to diagnose and treat mentally ill inmates and to createappropriate settings to care for them, the underlying problems at SCDC thatJudge Baxley found will persist," he continued. "We hope the governorand the legislature will enable the Department to correct them by authorizingthe necessary funding for these essential services."

"After this training, I would stop what I'm doing and give this inmate 15 minutes and that would make my day easier," Reese said. "Instead of having to use force, restraint chair, or, you know, any kind of force."

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