Officials Design Model Mental Health Training for Detention Officers

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Center of Innovation

The Correctional Management Institute of Texas earned the first Center of Innovation designation from the National Institute of Corrections for a mental health training initiative for jail detention officers.

The Correctional Management Institute of Texas (CMIT) at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) hosted a group representing county jails, mental health professionals, and federal partners to develop a model training initiative for jail detention officers in the State of Texas to address better mental health issues in their facilities.

“County jails have become the largest mental health facilities in the country and that is just wrong,” said Sheriff Dennis Wilson of Limestone County, who serves as the president of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas (SAT). “The professional individuals of the corrections profession are united in our interest to change the way we deal with people who have mental health issues and are wrongly detained in the criminal justice system.”

The Texas Mental Health Training Initiative for Jails, facilitated by Mary Alice Conroy, a psychology professor and director of SHSU’s clinical psychology doctoral program, is developing expanded curriculum that will be mandated for all new local detention officers in Texas as well as an optional mental health officer certification, including a crisis intervention trainer (CIT). The trainers will deliver the courses to new and existing jailers in their regions, especially in rural areas of the state. The new curriculum will expand the jailer certificate issued by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) from 96 to 120 hours, and the CIT would be an optional 40-hour course to develop local expertise and deliver training to jail professionals serving in facilities across the state’s 254 counties.

“This is ground zero,” said Stephen Amos, Chief of the Jails Division for the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), U.S. Department of Justice. “The Sheriff’s Association of Texas, jail administrators, and (CMIT at) Sam Houston State University has pledged to create unprecedented training across the State of Texas in support of this critical need. It’s an incredible collaborative with national implications.”

The NIC has designated CMIT at SHSU as a Center of Innovation (COI) for its sponsorship and support of the Texas Mental Health Initiative for Jails.

“We are very proud of this designation,” said Phillip Lyons, Dean of the College of Criminal Justice and Director of the Criminal Justice Center. “It is an endorsement of our efforts at infusing the latest research into practice.”

This is the first COI designation to be awarded by NIC. The COI designation is reserved for highly select agencies that serve as laboratories for promising practices; develop and disseminate promising and evidence-based information that enhances the field of corrections; provide specialized technical assistance and training; conducts evaluation research; and coordinates with NIC networks to promote promising and evidence-based correctional practices consistent with the needs of the field.

“This initiative is a tremendous collaboration with federal, state, and local partners who are all focused on providing our jail professionals with the level of training to increase their effectiveness in carrying out their enormous responsibilities in jails across the state,” said Doug Dretke, Executive Director of CMIT. “We are honored to receive the designation by the National Institute of Corrections as a Center of Innovation and continue to look forward to serving as a resource for jail professionals across the state.”

The NIC, which is facilitating the program development, hopes to implement this model across the country. In addition to leaders in Texas, the focus group included representatives from Santa Barbara, CA; Broward County, FL; Dane County, WI; Douglas County, NE and Franklin County, OH, who contributed to the development of the training and want to implement a COI train the trainer program in their representative jurisdictions.

The training will provide 24 hours of instruction on mental health issues, including the use of screening instruments, resources available to staff, and de-escalation techniques to help those in crisis or with mental health issues. The CIT trainer certification, which is based on a program offered by the NIC, would build crisis intervention teams in local facilities and provide trainers for other jails around the state.

The initiative provides a proactive approach to addressing the prominent issue in American society, where criminal justice agencies are frequently the last resort for individuals suffering from mental illness. To help develop the curriculum for Texas, the focus group included representatives from the US Department of Justice’s NIC and Bureau of Justice Assistance, the U.S. Marshal Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CMIT, the Texas A & M Engineering Extension Service, TCOLE, the Texas Veterans Commission, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments, SAT, the American Jail Association, and the Texas Jail Association.

Among the topics that will be addressed in the curriculum through instruction and hands-on demonstrations are:

  • Screening for suicide risk and prevention of suicide incident
  • Identifying factors, signs, and symptoms of potential suicides
  • Learning how to handle suicidal inmates
  • Understanding components of the facilities mental disabilities and suicide prevention plan
  • Recognizing the five most prominent categories of mental illness among detainees
  • Addressing psychosis and relating to the needs of the inmate
  • Demonstrating a communicative approach an officer can use during a psychotic episode
  • Learning basic interaction techniques to utilize with people with mental illness

Kim Howell, Assistant Chief Deputy for Detention at the Lubbock County Sheriff’s Office, spearheaded the group after attending a networking session at NIC. She said the new curriculum will provide an increased knowledge, awareness and skillset for detention officers and allow for improved recognition and care of inmates with mental health issues.

“For officers, it provides more resources in their toolbelt to deal with mental health situations,” said Howell. “For inmates, it will increase professional care and awareness, decrease the use of force, increase the use of de-escalation techniques, and potentially decrease the length of stay in jail.”

Dretke said the initiative would not have been possible without the leadership of many individuals and the support of their organizations.

“I want to recognize the leadership of Sheriff Dennis Wilson, president of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas, Sheriff Kelly Rowe, chair of the Jail Advisory Committee of SAT, Kim Howell of the Lubbock County Sheriff’s Office and Stephen Amos of the National Institute of Corrections for their significant initiative to enhance the training of jail professionals,” Dretke said.

Member of The Texas State University System