The duties of a correctional officer in modern times have evolved to essentially become a provider of mental health services, according to officials at prisons in the valley.
It’s a change Northumberland County jailer Tom Reisinger didn’t expect when he started in the federal prison system more than 25 years ago. Reisinger said correctional officers need to be aware of the mental health of the inmates they oversee. Union County Executive Sam Kranzel had similar thoughts.
“It’s almost 60 to 70 percent of your job. Officers are the first line of defense,” Reisinger said. “Life in a federal institution, there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t spent half my day with a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a mental health professional because we’ve had crisis after crisis after crisis. You’d think you’re trying to keep 1,200 guys from killing each other. It’s not like that. The drugs got stronger, more potent, and homemade. It was just destroying those people.
Hiring more mental health workers is costing counties money that are already struggling to balance their budgets. Prisons, including Northumberland County, are already facing staff shortages and the field of mental health professionals is already short of qualified staff. There’s also a high turnover rate in corrections, which means new officers are constantly being hired and require training in mental health and suicide watch, Reisinger said.
“I would say mental health is overtaking medical issues right now,” Reisinger said. “Mental health is a tip of the spear issue.”
Kranzel agreed with Reisinger, saying correctional officers often act as “unofficial advisers” to inmates.
“They do this every day, in every prison in the country,” he said.
Kara Heitzman, mental health counselor at PrimeCare Medical, said offenders are assessed immediately when they first enter Coal Township Jail. They are asked if they have had suicidal thoughts or a history of suicide in the past 30 days. Their responses to a suicide screen will determine whether they should speak to Heitzman.
“I meet them in the first seven days they’re here,” Heitzman said. “I go through mental health counseling with them and get their history. We’ll talk about medication. If they’re on medication, we’ll get them to see our psychiatrist and we’ll keep their medication.”
When a person is identified as being at risk of suicide, they are placed on suicide watch based on the severity of their thoughts. The first level, which are those who have a plan to commit suicide, is placed in security gowns and a guarded cell. Level two is placed in prison uniforms but monitored regularly, Heitzman said.
“Mental health systems in all institutions are limited,” Heitzman said. “Most of the time we don’t have enough clinicians for the prison population. We offer crisis management and psychiatry services. If someone is on suicide watch, they see their mental health daily. We assess his risk for suicide and self-harm.”
People with substance abuse disorders are also assessed. They discuss coping skills and support systems when they come out of prison, she said.
“I see a lot of inmates, a large percentage of the prison, quite regularly,” she said. “The mental health (services) are completely voluntary, unless they are on suicide watch when they first arrive. We always keep an eye on them to make sure people are stable and not not regress in this type of environment.”
Reisinger said the prison has mattresses designed to prevent suicides. Each staff member has suicide prevention pocket guides to carry with them at all times. All staff have recently undergone suicide training and willful indifference training, which is defined as “conscious or reckless disregard for the consequences of one’s acts or omissions.” It involves something more than negligence, but is satisfied by something less than acts or omissions for the purpose of causing harm or in the knowledge that harm will result”.
Inmates with serious mental illnesses
Joe Labosky, director of mental health for Northumberland County Behavioral Health/Developmental Health Services, said a meeting is being held every Wednesday morning to review a list of inmates identified as having serious mental illness. Attending the meeting are representatives from Northumberland County Jail, Northumberland County Adult Probation, Primecare Medical, Northumberland County Behavioral Health, Northumberland County D&A and Central Susquehanna Opportunities.
“Primecare Medical staff thoroughly review the status of everyone on the list with respect to mental status, behavioral issues, medication adherence and whether there are any ongoing medical issues that are being processed or need to be,” Labosky said. “In addition, as required, planning for the release of any inmates who may have an imminent release in the near future and what needs to be put in place with respect to a house plan. All previously mentioned agencies or entities are working together to make the release of an inmate as successful as possible.”
When needed, workers in our mental health and addictions and alcohol services perform assessments to determine the individual’s mental health or addictions service needs and assist with referrals to these services when needed , did he declare.
“Northumberland County BH/IDS recently contracted someone to run anger management groups in the prison,” Labosky said. “Currently, the individual leads two anger management groups every Tuesday and Thursday. Additionally, when the need arises, we are able to facilitate mental health engagement procedures in the prison. in conjunction with Primecare Medical.These procedures may result in the transfer of an inmate from prison to a state forensic hospital or, in rare cases, to a state hospital for treatment of their mental illness. »
Similar in Union County
Procedures are similar in Union County. When a person is brought in, they complete a psychological questionnaire to determine their medical and mental history. Every inmate is seen by the CMSU program, which provides a wide range of mental health, developmental disabilities and drug and alcohol services to citizens of Columbia, Montour, Snyder and Union counties, Kranzel said.
If the inmate scores high and is deemed to be at risk of suicide, they are placed in prevention garments. If they are on suicide watch, they are placed in a cell that is monitored 24 hours a day with checks by corrections officers every 15 minutes, Kranzel said.
Inmates have church services, drug and alcohol counseling, anger management classes and mental health counseling through CMSU, he said.
Correctional officers receive daily training on mental health issues. New employees receive the training when they are hired, he said.
Barriers to care
Heitzman said the lack of community resources, including outpatient facilities or inpatient mental health facilities, is often a barrier for inmates seeking mental health services. If they seek hospital treatment for mental health, they must go through court approval.
“These people really want these services, but their access is limited,” Heitzman said. “A lot of them don’t drive, so they might not have transportation to get to those places. There’s just nothing around to get involved or engage with. “
Reisinger said getting them into wards was difficult, especially with COVID-19 protocols.
“It’s stricter and more rules to get in,” he said. “COVID plays a part. They have to be COVID-negative when you transfer them and COVID-negative when you hit the door. Sometimes that changes over the course of the ride. With today’s world, the outbreak drug abuse today and mental health issues today, I thought there would be (mental health) facilities everywhere.Since I took this job, I find it extremely difficult to to get people where they need to be.
Even when people are released, services are limited. There is a “pure lack” of mental health services, Heitzman said.
“When you have people leaving here, they have mental health issues, addiction issues, they’ve been incarcerated. It’s a trio of hurdles against an individual trying to improve their life,” said Heitzman. “They’re asking for services and people take a dim view of that. People might come to people looking for services, saying it’s going to be their tax dollars to pay for that. They’re less likely to reach out. They can’t not find a job based on their charges They fall into the cycle of doing what they know how to do (criminal behavior) because they feel they have no other choice.
Kranzel said the country needs more mental health treatment facilities rather than prisons. The corrections system should not be responsible for mental health issues as it has been, he said.
“We need more mental health professionals so that inmates and non-inmates can get treatment,” he said.
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