The bearded guy in the red Allegheny County Jail jumper was screaming, “you better get this guy out of here before I hurt him! … He’s puking all over the place.”
Two corrections officers quickly turned their attention to another red-clad person. “Did you get your detox meds this morning?” one of the officers asked.
On this February day, the scenario was playing out in a conference room in Pittsburgh Mercy’s South Side complex. A dozen corrections officers, all assigned to the jail’s mental health pods, were undergoing Crisis Intervention Team training.
All knew well that their workplace — where 57 percent of the 2,200 inmates have some mental health problem — has replaced the former Mayview State Hospital’s forensic wards.
“We are getting the most acute inmates back in the jail, the most sick, and sometimes the most violent,” said one of the officers, all of whom spoke freely on condition that they not be named.
“You can’t treat them like second-class citizens,” said another. “They’re not.”
It had been more than five years since 32 jail officers underwent the week-long CIT training. In the week-long course, officers learn to understand different mental health diagnoses, perform tasks while hearing "voices" through headphones, and learn listening and negotiating techniques. For instance, in a scenario involving a paranoid inmate worried about poisoned food, the officers listened respectfully to her concerns, and then had another inmate serve as taste tester.
Warden Orlando Harper said he freed up a dozen officers for a week because he is revamping the handling of mental illness in the jail. He said a six-month-old partnership with Allegheny Health Network has brought better psychiatric care, and now he wants corrections staff to hone their ability to calmly handle mental health crises.
“We want to send inmates from our jail back into the community that have been medicated, that can be productive citizens, who won’t just end up coming back to our jail,” Mr. Harper said.
Last month, he turned to Pittsburgh Mercy and the county Department of Human Services, which has provided CIT training to 643 people — mostly police — since 2007. Eventually he’d like to have certified CIT trainers providing the 40-hour course within the jail, he said.
Officers said they’re using routines, regularity and even music to maintain calm on mental health pods.
They face strong headwinds. A managerial decision to house detoxing inmates near mentally ill inmates has caused friction, some said. A reduction in out-of-cell time may improve officer safety, but increases inmate frustrations. Backups at Torrance State Hospital’s forensic unit mean that inmates destined for that facility often wait in jail for a month, often “decompensating,” officers added.
Mr. Harper said he wants more group therapy, treatment and out-of-cell time for 110 inmates in special mental health units.
“There’s a misconception out there with the public that corrections officers are rough, don’t care,” said one of the officers, as he prepared to graduate from CIT training. “We care about the mentally ill especially.”
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1542.