« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Rupa Shenoy, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published February 14 2013

Training helps cope with mentally ill inmates

STILLWATER, Minn. – In what was to be a routine trip to St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul, correctional officer Shane Warnke Jr. suddenly found himself confronted by the kind of danger he was trained to face while overseeing inmates in prison.

As he escorted an inmate scheduled for surgery, a frantic nurse appeared. A patient had taken a staff member hostage.

When the nurse led Warnke to a room with the door propped open, he could see a staff member lying on the floor. As he stepped inside, Warnke saw a man holding a pair of scissors to a nurse’s throat. The patient lunged at Warnke twice, but the officer did not respond with force.

“I introduced myself, and I used my first name, which is something we usually don’t do in corrections,” he said. “It could’ve really went the other way. Could’ve went south, fast.”

Warnke, an officer at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, had just completed a weeklong program in crisis intervention training for workers who deal with mentally ill people in crisis. During the CIT training, he learned that by using first names, officers can ease tense situations.

Warnke started a conversation with the man and eventually persuaded him to put down the scissors. “It’d be a lot easier to talk to you if you didn’t have a pair of scissors in your hands,” he recalled telling the man.

The crisis intervention training, he said, taught him to recognize the signs that the man was delusional and to respond correctly.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections is providing the voluntary training, recognizing that correctional officers have long been on the front lines in the response to mental illness.

In 2012, 24 percent of the more than 15,000 Minnesota inmates sought therapy. The most common diagnosis was antisocial personality disorder.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek recently called jail a place where people with mental illness sit and wait. Stanek has collaborated with U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., on national legislation aimed at providing more help to mentally ill inmates.

Efforts to focus on mental illness have attracted widespread attention since the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown., Conn., where 20 children and six adults died.

Many law enforcement agencies nationwide are trying to train officers how to properly respond to people in crisis who are mentally ill.

Such programs are recommended by the National Institute of Corrections, and many states have tried them with general success. Minnesota started its training in late 2011.

Stillwater Warden Michelle Smith led the team that signed a $50,000 contract with consulting company Pro-Crisis of River Falls, Wis. Four times a year, the company conducts crisis intervention training at Stillwater prison. Correctional officers attend a weeklong training program because cultivating patience takes time, Smith said.

“When you’re dealing with a population that has the potential to be volatile, they’re looking for somebody that they can believe in and trust,” she said.

Each day, students engage in role-playing scenarios that reflect what can happen in prison. In 2012, Minnesota inmates assaulted prison staff members 17 times.

As the week progresses, the scenarios become more difficult.

“The more you do it, the more you see it, the more you learn,” Smith said.

So far, 108 Department of Corrections employees have completed the program.

Pro-Crisis owner Patti Hecht-Kressly, a retired St. Paul police officer, said students learn to listen and be nonconfrontational. Although that might sound simple, she said, it can be difficult for some people to learn.

“Cops are taught in school, and (correctional officers) are taught, that you go in there and you take care of the situation – you go physical and that’s the way we’re going to do it,” Hecht-Kressly said. “To go in and talk to somebody is much different.”

Having a properly trained officer on staff allows prison personnel to call the nearest CIT officer to respond to a critical incident with a mentally ill inmate.

Smith, the Stillwater warden, wants one-fourth of correctional officers to receive the training, even though there is no documented evidence yet of its effectiveness in Minnesota facilities.

The Department of Corrections is developing a procedure to monitor such incidents. For the moment, department officials can say only that they happen often.


Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send a letter to the editor.