Minn. training COs on how to deal with the mentally ill

Weeklong program teaches corrections officers to recognize the signs of mental illness and how to respond correctly

By C1 Staff

STILLWATER, Minn. — The Minnesota Department of Corrections is providing voluntary training on how to deal with mentally ill people in crisis after recognizing that corrections officers have long been on the front lines in response to mental illness.

The program came to light when Corrections Officer Shane Warnke Jr. used the skills he learned from it to defuse a dangerous situation while escorting an inmate to a hospital visit. Warnke convinced a delusional man holding a hospital staff member hostage with a pair of scissors to let the hostage go.

The weeklong program teaches corrections officers to recognize the signs of mental illness and how to respond correctly, generally using first names to ease tension, according to The Republic.

Such programs are recommended by the National Institute of Corrections and are receiving even more attention following the Newtown school shooting where 26 people died. Minnesota started its training in late 2011 and so far 108 employees have completed the program.

"When you're dealing with a population that has the potential to be volatile, they're looking for somebody they can believe in and trust," said Stillwater Warden Michelle Smith, who signed a $50,000 contract with consulting company Pro-Crisis of River Falls. Corrections officers attend a weeklong training program because cultivating patience takes time.

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

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

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

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, it can be difficult for some people to learn.

"Cops are taught in school, and [corrections 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 told The Republic. "To go in and talk to somebody is much different."

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