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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Feature Story: NAMI Indiana Correctional Training: Improving Safety for Inmates with Mental Illnesses

Contributor: Kellie Meyer

As part of our effort to address the needs of people with mental illnesses involved in the criminal justice system, NAMI Indiana has developed a 10-hour program to educate correctional officers about mental illness and provide them with practical skills for working with people with mental illnesses. By teaching correctional staff about mental illness, we prepare them to better understand and more effectively communicate with inmates with mental illness, and thus enhance their personal safety.   We have trained more than 1700 correctional staff in Indiana and 247 from Kentucky.

The training has improved working and living conditions tremendously for both correctional staff and for inmates living with mental illnesses.   Use of force by correctional officers who were trained has decreased by as much as 70%.

Collaborators:

We chose a team of outstanding experts in the field of criminal justice, and collaborated with Indiana University to review the available data and to establish a best practice.  We worked with Wabash Valley Correctional Facility to ensure the practicality of the program. 

Curriculum:

Our training curriculum includes modules on: "The Categories of Mental Illness"; "The Biological Basis of Mental Illness"; "The Treatment of Mental Illness"; "Interacting With Persons With Mental Illness"; and "Criminal Justice & Mental Illness:  Principles and Applications, A New Beginning." While the first four modules provide officers with vital information and education, the last module is an interactive session that allows participants to apply their new knowledge to scenarios from the workplace. We work with the officers to develop and practice the tools they need to more effectively communicate with someone living from mental illness.

Customization:

One of the most important aspects of the correctional training is the effort we put into customizing the program for each setting. While overall education and awareness about mental illness has been extremely helpful in all settings, understanding the protocols of each respective agency helps us to ensure that what we are teaching is relevant to the officers.  We work with veteran officers at each facility to find out what procedures they currently follow, and what needs they see. Rather than simply educating, we strive to help them develop tools they can use in every day practice.  We also work to ensure that the officers feel they can continue to put their safety first; if the officer does not feel safe, no one else will either.

Why Not CIT?

The training course outlined was designed for maximum security prisons. While the training shares many of the same verbal de-escalation skills that are emphasized in CIT, in a corrections setting it is important to teach officers how to assess symptoms over time and build effective rapport with people with mental illnesses in custody. This training better equips the officers to make those assessments by recognizing certain symptoms and by developing a basic knowledge of the patterns of behaviors associated with the various mental illnesses. On the street, in a crisis situation, the officer is walking into the unknown, and often will never see the person again. In a corrections environment, officers have to build rapport in order to work effectively and safely with individuals with mental illness.   

Kellie Meyer, M.A. is Criminal Justice Director and Development Director at NAMI Indiana. To learn more about Indiana’s corrections training, contact her or NAMI Indiana Executive Director Pam McConey at (317)-925-9399 or nami-in@nami.org. 

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