Prison guards learn how to manage mentally ill inmates

Dr. Clarence “Clay” Watson, director of the Forensic Psychiatry Training Program in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told correctional officers Monday how mental illness might mpact prison inmates. The lecture was part of a week-long seminar to instruct prison personnel about specific mental illnesses, how to recognize them and how to de-escalate tense situations involving inmates with disorders.  (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

Dr. Clarence “Clay” Watson, director of the Forensic Psychiatry Training Program in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told correctional officers Monday how mental illness might mpact prison inmates. The lecture was part of a week-long seminar to instruct prison personnel about specific mental illnesses, how to recognize them and how to de-escalate tense situations involving inmates with disorders. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

DOVER — Picture this: You’re a new correctional officer making the rounds when you come across an inmate who believes the government is really out to get him.

The man pleads with you to let him out of his cell before the FBI comes after him. If you don’t, he says, he will hang himself so they don’t get him first.

What do you do?

Mental illness, which can range from anorexia to schizophrenia, is a tricky beast. Confronted by someone with a disorder, it’s often very difficult to know how to react — or to even know if someone is faking.

For those tasked with keeping prisons under control, this can be of paramount importance. Recognizing and reacting to mental disorders is key to keeping people safe and providing the necessary treatment.

To those ends, the Department of Correction is hosting a weeklong seminar for officers who will learn about specific illnesses, how to recognize them and how to de-escalate tense situations involving inmates with disorders.

The crisis intervention training is similar to that used in different parts of the country, tailored to Delaware based on recommendations from department staff.

On Monday, Dr. Clarence “Clay” Watson, the director of Forensic Psychiatry Training Program in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke to about 50 officers for most of the day at the Department of Corrections Administrative Building in Dover,, providing details on mental illness and how it might impact inmates.

Around the late 1970s, the number of patients admitted to mental hospitals began to steeply decline. At the same time, the number of individuals with mental illnesses sentenced to prison took a large leap.

That’s placed greater demands on correctional officers. According to the Department of Correction, at least half of the approximately 6,000 convicts in a Delaware prison have a disorder.

Dr. Watson said many inmates do not receive the proper level of care for their illnesses in jail. They are often dealing with drug abuse concurrently, making treatment potentially more difficult, he said.

While many inmates may not be violent, others can be when in the midst of delusions, which they cannot be simply talked out of.

“We just try the best that we can do, and then we try to do it in the most humane way possible,” said Dr. Watson, who also works for the state’s Department of Health and Social Services. “We try to remember, as difficult as it is, we try to remember their humanity.”

Throughout the presentation, guards often asked questions.

A common theme could be seen through the queries: Officers did not think they were receiving sufficient support from department administration.

Department Commissioner Robert Coupe said officials were listening attentively to concerns and viewed the training in part as a way to learn how they could better help staffers.

Communication between administration, medical personnel and correctional officers is an “area that obviously we need to work on,” he said.

Several officers cited specific situations they had encountered, with one man detailing multiple incidents where medical officials did not provide requested information on inmates’ mental health.

Another officer told of a prisoner who feigned a disorder by falling to the ground.

The goal of the week’s session, Judy Caprio said, is to provide tools and resources for correctional officers. Ms. Caprio is the director of behavioral health for the department.

Coincidentally, on Thursday the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware and Community Legal Aid Society Inc. filed a lawsuit against the Department of Correction for allegedly mistreating convicts with mental illnesses.

The lawsuit accuses the agency of holding at least 100 people with disorders in solitary confinement, putting them at greater risk of paranoia and suicide.

The seminar has been in the works for months, and the department has been working to develop a response plan for years, officials said.

Lessons will continue throughout the week, and officers will have a chance to take part in “role-playing” activities on Wednesday and Thursday. Several other medical professionals were scheduled to speak.

Some participants signed up, while others were selected by the wardens of each facility.

Lt. Garland Williams, who is stationed at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution, said he thought the training was a welcome idea. Prison staff is interested in learning how they can better respond to inmates with mental illnesses, said the 16-year correctional officer.

“We see stuff citizens don’t see,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.