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Officer training for mental health in short supply

Alisa Roth Jun 30, 2015
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It’s no coincidence the newly appointed head of the Cook County Jail is a clinical psychologist. Like other jails around the country, Chicago has a large number of inmates who have a serious mental illness, so corrections officers end up dealing with a lot of mental health crises.

To Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, keeping people with mental illness in jail is like sending preschoolers to a college calculus class: they just don’t belong there.

“As opposed to running mental health hospitals, as opposed to having community resources,” he says, “we’re going to take this group of people [and say] — ‘Let’s see, where shall we put them? Let’s put them all in jails.’”

As sheriff, the jail is ultimately his responsibility. Jails are designed to hold people for short stretches, Dart points out, after they’ve been charged with a crime but before they’ve been convicted.

“It presents obvious challenges to all of us to take a population that wasn’t meant to be in this environment,” he says.

Cook County Corrections Academy cadets

Cook County Corrections Academy cadets

I visited the Cook County corrections academy recently, on one of the last days of the cadets’ training. After a short review of concepts like different kinds of mental illness, and how to reassure inmates that officers are there to help them through their crises, the cadets get to practice what they’ve been learning. Dart is one of loudest voices in what’s become a national conversation about mentally ill in the criminal justice system.

He points out that Chicago closed half of its public mental health clinics in 2012. And he regularly tallies the number of mentally ill inmates in Cook County on his Twitter feed. (On June 4, for example, he tweeted that at booking, 39 percent of inmates self-reported having a mental illness.) It’s because the jail is now a de facto psychiatric hospital that Dart thinks all corrections officers need to be trained on how to deal with mental illness.

Sherie Yarbrough, a corrections officer who has been working with mentally ill inmates since she started with the department in 2000, is teaching one of the sessions. She explains the scene to a team of three cadets, two men and a woman.

“I’m having a problem with the detainee, his name is Bruno,” she says. “Bruno is about to jump. I don’t know. I called the CIT [Crisis Intervention Team] unit in because I can’t talk him down. So hopefully you can. Alright? If you don’t, he going to fall and break his neck.”

Another corrections officer, Angel Garcia, is playing Bruno. He has a big bushy beard, and he’s wearing a black ski cap. Standing on a chair in the corner of the classroom, Garcia/Bruno starts to shout at the officers. 

Officer Angel Garcia

Officer Angel Garcia

“Stay right there,” he says. “Don’t come up these stairs!”

He’s a pretty good actor, and he actually manages to look a little wild-eyed as the cadets approach him.

“What’s going on, man? What’s going down?” says one of the cadets. “My name is Officer Downs. I’m here with Officer Salas.”

Before Downs can introduce the third cadet, though, Garcia/Bruno interrupts.

“Well, Officer Downs, well guess what?” Garcia/Bruno shouts. “It’s about to go downs. I’m serious, man. I’m about to go downs this cliff right here. I’m gonna jump…”

This goes on for a while. Downs keeps trying to calm him down, and Garcia—as Bruno—gets more and more upset. Finally, the woman cadet, Salas, starts talking, and Garcia/Bruno starts to settle down a little. When it’s all over, Yarbrough, the veteran officer, debriefs the cadets, talking them through what they did right and what they did wrong.

“We have to use everything that’s in our arsenals,” she says. “Sometimes male detainees respond to female officers differently. When she started talking to him, he calmed down a little bit.”

When Yarbrough started working in the jail more than a decade ago she said there was no special training on how to deal with mentally ill inmates. And it was terrifying.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she remembers. “I was scared of the inmates, I was scared I might lose my job. I was…I didn’t want to make any bad decisions, didn’t want to tell anybody to do something wrong.”

The training she helped with today is supposed to help these new cadets be better prepared than she was. Ultimately, the idea is to improve outcomes for inmates with mental illness by stopping a suicide attempt or by having officers use force less frequently.

Officer Sherie Yarbrough

Officer Sherie Yarbrough 

Carl Alaimo is a psychologist who’s in charge of mental health training at the academy; he used to run the jail’s mental health services. He says educating officers makes a huge difference in how they respond to mentally ill inmates. Take an inmate who refuses to get out of bed, say, or leave his cell.

“Normally that’s considered disobedience,” he says. “‘You’re not listening to me.’ But in the case of a trained officer, they’re going wait a minute, maybe something else is going on here.”

A handful of states, including Indiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, have opted to provide mental health training for correctional officers. And more and more counties and states are beginning to follow their lead.   

“It’s not as widespread as we would like it to be. It’s fairly sporadic,” says Ron Honberg, of the advocacy organization, the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI. The training represents a real about-face for corrections officers, he says. “It really sort of flies in the face of their traditional training. They’re taught to keep their distance, they’re taught to speak in a way that calms the person down, they’re taught to reassure the individual and it becomes a win-win proposition.”

A win-win proposition for both the inmates and the officers, since an appropriate response by the officer can keep volatile situations from escalating. And, sometimes an officer who is reassuring instead of threatening can convince an inmate to get treatment. Better outcomes that can mean less time in jail or prison, less violence, and—for the correctional facilities—fewer lawsuits. 


Roth’s reporting on mental illness and the criminal justice system was supported by a Soros Justice Fellowship

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