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Correctional Psychology Article

Lorry Schoenly, PhD, RN, CCHP Correctional Healthcare
with Lorry Schoenly, PhD, RN, CCHP

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Help control inmates through better understanding

Can an understanding of your inmate's traumatic past help with current management issues? You bet! According to Stephanie S. Covington, Ph.D., L.C.S.W, you can help to keep the situation under control by looking behind erratic behavior and violent outbursts to better understand the inmate's thought process.

Dr. Covington is the author of several books on the subject of trauma-informed practices, including gender-specific and addiction treatments. Her work is currently being featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network in a seven-week series filmed in the Rockville Correctional Facility in Rockville, Ill. "Breaking Down the Bars" chronicles the journey of several female inmates as they deal with their abusive past and gain skills to move on to a more productive life.

Dr. Covington is convinced that anyone who works with people needs to be trauma-informed. In particular, inmate behaviors can be related to past history. Vivid memories of prior trauma can be triggered by a sight, sound or smell. The flood of returning memories can overwhelm the person and impact responses to a situation. Self-protecting defenses such as screaming, violent outbursts, or withdrawal can be produced at unlikely times. By better understanding these responses, officers can intervene appropriately to gain control instead of escalating the situation further.

In fact, many of the common methods for controlling an unsafe inmate situation can actually produce the opposite effect during a traumatized inmate situation triggered by the past. In addition, an inmate flooded with vivid memories of a rape or abuse may over-react to the yelling, loud door slamming and name calling that can be present in a typical cell block. Dr. Covington suggests there are tools and skills that have been proven to de-escalate reactive situations.

Here are some measures you can take to regain control in a traumatized inmate situation:

  • Use a steady, slow and modulated voice tone when giving instruction.
  • Refocus the inmate on the present. Make statements about where they are.
  • Confirm that the inmate is safe right now and should not fear harm.
  • Ask simple questions about the present to refocus thoughts on the here and now.

The next time you have an inappropriate inmate outburst or response, consider a trauma-informed approach. It may make all the difference!

Have you used any trauma-informed procedures at your facility? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

About the author

Dr. Schoenly has been a nurse for 30 years and is currently specializing in correctional healthcare. She is an author and educator seeking to improve patient safety and professional nursing practice behind bars. Her web-presence, Correctional Nurse, provides information and support to those working in correctional health care. Her books, Essentials of Correctional Nursing and The Correctional Health Care Patient Safety Handbook are available in print and digital on amazon.

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