News Article Details

Mental health training puts Travis County jailers on the spot

Austin American-Statesman - 6/14/2019

Ryan Sterling Smith, a paid actor, sat in a classroom in the Travis County Correctional Complex Thursday with a bed sheet over his head, refusing to show his face.

He was pretending to be an inmate suffering from manic depression -- part of a mental health course for corrections officers who work in the jail to help them improve their interactions with the mentally ill population.

Corrections officer Amanda Haney volunteered in the exercise to practice her skills. She asked Smith basic questions about how he was doing, then why he had the sheet over his head, her voice calm and tempered as to not incite him.

"Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?" she asked. "I know jail is difficult. ...I am just trying to make sure you are OK."

Smith responded in a low voice that he was "fine" but would not remove the sheet.

The other officers in the training gave feedback, then Haney tried again, toying with the best way to coax Smith to remove the sheet from over his head without upsetting him. In a real-life situation, it would be impossible to know if the inmate was concealing a knife or any other weapon, and if he would try to hurt himself or others. The interaction could easily become deadly.

Haney changed her tactic, trying to negotiate with Smith, instead of ordering him to take off the sheet. But in the end, she wasn't able to convince him and had to call for backup.

The play-acting was part of the new 40-hour course offered to corrections officers on a voluntary basis. Twelve participated Thursday.

Jailers already get three days of training in mental health, suicide prevention and de-escalation before they start the job. But with jails also doubling as hospitals and mental health institutions, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said the extra training is more important than ever.

"If it's going to be our responsibility, we are going to do it the best that we can," she said.

As many as 20% of inmates in the jail in Del Valle require treatment for mental health issues, including hallucinations, delusions, psychosis and suicidal thoughts, jail mental health director Daniel Smith said. Last year, 36 inmates attempted suicide. And while none succeeded, the fragile state of many inmates' mental health poses challenges for corrections officers every day.

As part of the training, officers learned active listening, using encouraging language and asking open-ended questions in their interactions with the paid actors as a way to practice handling inmates with bipolar disorder and manic depression without having to use force.

Smith said the skills will help the jailers in their interactions with all inmates. He said he hopes to offer the course several times a year in the future for officers who want the extra training.

"These are officers who want to learn how to manage mentally ill patients," Smith said. "They have a special place in their heart for working with this population."

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