Getting inside a mentally disturbed inmate's head
Allowing an inmate to believe that you see the world in the same way he does can make the inmate more manageable and less violent to both you and other staff members
By Charles Morgan
A big part of corrections is working with individuals that have mental disabilities. These disabilities may range from something minor, like attitude problems, to something more severe, like a complete altered view of the world.
The argument can be made all day long that as corrections officers we do not have sufficient training to handle these people. However, at the end of the day our training isn't going to change and we are still left having to handle these offenders.
So we have to consider the training that we do have. We receive training in personality types, the ever popular verbal judo, and communication and interviewing; granted not to a large extent, but there is still useful information in there. The thing that makes these techniques effective is that you must get into the subjects head. In the case of "crazy" offenders, that means seeing things through their skewed perception of the world.
It is very important to take as much voluntary training in these areas as possible. Learn from the experience of other officers. Even though that officer may have less time in, it is possible he has experience in these areas.
The thing that will help each us the most is communication and an effort to learn. Classification generally has some amount of psych classes under their belt as requirements for their degrees. They are another resource.
We all understand that you cannot let an offender "get" to you. But with the mentally handicapped, that’s not so easy. Many times they are not just verbally disruptive, but also violent. The violence gets difficult to handle.
You have an offender that reaches out his food port at people, and throws urine. Depending on the situation he gets sprayed, slammed, etc. The next day it starts all over again. Even if he doesn't do anything immediately, you know it’s coming. You just don't know when.
Part of the frustration and anger that builds up in these offenders is not only the incarceration. It’s also the ever changing medication regime. Institution doctors change offenders’ medications often, even when it seems to us that their current regimen is working.
So you have an unstable offender who is in withdrawal from the lack of one medication and also adjusting a new medication, along the side effects it carries. Then you have everyone that offender interacts with believing the offender is crazy. We know that the world in the offender’s mind is fictional. So the offender is then even more isolated socially as he no one to relate to.
If you take into account the offender’s state of mind, the world he sees, you may be able to calm his actions. Simply giving the offender the slightest validation can have a positive effect on how that offender behaves. For example, offender A is kinda crazy, he has this firm belief that aliens are searching for him. Probably believes that they captured him in his past, maybe they force him to do things.
This offender is unpredictable and potentially violent. He's secure segregation, probably solitary. This offender is not just locked in a cell, he is locked inside himself. He is socially isolated even from interactions with staff, because we think he is crazy.
Acknowledging that offenders state of mind and beliefs could help to alter his behavior, just by giving him the slightest validation.
Let's say he is having one of his breakdowns. He has been throwing cups full of urine, or some type of liquid, at every opportunity. During one of the offender’s calmer moments, approach him.
CO: "Mr. A, look I will make you a deal. If you stop throwing urine or whatever I won't tell ‘them’ where you are.”
Offender: "Tell who?"
CO: "You know who I mean. Now if you’re going to keep attacking everyone then why should not tell ‘them.’”
Now I am sure there will be all kinds of criticism of what I just wrote. It will work, and it has worked.
Now to ethical criticisms: institutional doctors and psychiatrists see about 40 inmates a day. They do not have a significant amount of time to work with them. They are not working to "fix" them; they medicate the offender to make them more manageable.
The above scenario gives the offender the feeling that he’s not "alone." Someone has not blown off what he sees as real. He doesn't care that it came as somewhat of a threat. He cares that someone has spoken to him without casting down what he believes is real. It will potentially make an immediate difference.
Our job as corrections officers is care, custody, and control. Our job is not to "fix" the offenders thinking. If you can stop, or dissuade and offenders violent actions, then you not only protect the offender as he will not be the subject of a use of force, you also protect other staff members and yourself.
I do not have psychology degree. I have experience working these types of events effectively. I also have the experience of working with officers who are far more effective at handling these offenders than myself.
There are many different ways to work with these offenders. This one approach that I have seen have an immediate positive effect on an offender’s attitude and perception of the officers in his housing unit.