Travis Co. corrections officers train to better handle inmates with mental health issues

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TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — The Travis County Sheriff’s Office estimates that about 20 percent of the inmates in its jail require some kind of mental health treatment.

To better deal with that vulnerable population, 12 corrections officers volunteered to participate in a 40-hour advanced mental health training course at the Travis County Correctional Complex.

“As corrections officers, there’s lots of different areas you can specialize in, like K9 or tactical units or the dive team,” said Daniel Smith, the director of inmate mental health programs. “These officers said, ‘I want to work with the mentally ill. It means something to me, and I can contribute in a positive way.”

On Thursday the officers split into smaller groups so that they could work with actors trained to do mental health scenarios with them. In one room a coach watched and critiqued the response, as officers approached a seemingly depressed inmate who would not come out from underneath a sheet.

“In that scenario, you don’t know if that person has a knife behind that [sheet] that they’re going to stab individuals,” Smith explained. “But the last thing we want to do is have someone run in and pull the sheet off and ruin the rapport with the inmate and escalate the situation to a more dangerous one.”

Every corrections officer hired by the Travis County Sheriff’s Office already goes through three days of training for mental health, suicide prevention and de-escalation, Smith said. This course, however, goes further in helping personnel approach and handle people in safer, more caring ways.

“Jails across our nation are being forced to be hospitals and forced to be mental health facilities, and we’re really neither,” Sheriff Sally Hernandez said. “But if it’s going to be our responsibility, we’re going to do it the best that we can. This kind of training helps us do just that.”

This is the first time that the sheriff’s office offered the advanced mental health training to its officers. Administrators said they’d like to bring it back several more times throughout the year.

“Mental illness is a sickness, right?” Sheriff Hernandez said. “If somebody’s having a heart attack, they have to have skills. They have to be trained in how to approach that. It’s the same way with mental illness. We want [officers] to have those skills. We want them to have that training, and we want the best possible result.”

The various scenarios that the officers ran through Thursday with actors and instructors are similar to situations that they encounter every day on the job.

“We have individuals that are hallucinating or have delusions,” said Smith. “A lot of psychosis, depression and a lot of suicidal thoughts and attempts.”

“In 2018 there were 36 attempted suicides at the Travis County Jail, but they were all unsuccessful,” Sheriff Hernandez added. “It’s because of this type of training. We just think it’s important to help train them to communicate, to help de-escalate and how to care for people with mental illness.”

When corrections officers identify an inmate with a suicidal or mental health concern, they then refer them to the jail’s behavioral health staff members. The Travis County Jail has more than 20 counselors and social workers who can do assessments of inmates and figure out a treatment plan. There’s also a psychiatrist and four nurse practitioners on staff who can prescribe medications.

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