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3 tips for transitioning to working a mental health unit

This unit brings with it new challenges, personnel, opportunities and old habits

I’ve been transitioning from overnights to a full time mental health unit of convicted offenders. I made this decision knowing that the unit is potentially the most active within the facility.

There are a lot of moving parts within the unit things that can change on the drop of a dime. Those moving parts include mental health staff, nursing, correctional staff, and of course the different levels, phases, and abilities of offenders.

This unit has all levels of offenders to include those on segregation and everything in between. This new unit brings with it new challenges, personnel, opportunities and old habits. I will provide some tips to help new correctional officers make the transition to a new unit and then making it past their probation.

# 1. Watch and learn.
One thing that I picked up very early from my unit manager was watch, and learn. More important emulate the styles of those that are succeeding within the unit. As I watch the unit and those who appear to have the most success, they have skills the calm the offenders down, as opposed to hyping them up or agitating them.

These officers have been in the unit for some time and have developed a modicum of respect, and rapport with the offenders, and more importantly they are firm, fair and consistent. It is my hope that I can watch these officers learn from them and pick up on their styles to aid in my growth as a correctional officer working within the unit.

2. Rely on teamwork.
Working within a correctional facility one needs to rely on your partner officers. But more importantly within a mental health unit is working with the treatment staff. They have a different understanding of the offenders. This understanding provides for a full well rounded review of the offender. Thus hopefully providing for the treatment, care and custody of the offender.

It is clear to me that as a correctional officer working security in a mental health unit, I am only one part of the larger team. Without sharing the information, teaming, and meeting to determine course of actions — including therapy and security — we could not collectively hope to have a calm unit.

I rely on the therapists to share information that they think is critical to the security of the offender and the unit. While I share information back that they might not see. As an example something that I see on my watch, that might impact or provide for a fuller picture of the offenders mental health.

3. Admit mistakes.
Since transitioning to the new unit, I have made some mistakes. While I will not bore you with the details, I will say that each mistake has brought with it some great growth and learning opportunities. I have to take things in stride, and understand that there is more that I need to learn.

Each day brings with it new challenges within the correctional world, I am still embarking on a new career. I need to look, listen and follow the examples of senior officers working both within the unit, and the institution. Unlike most of my law enforcement career, I was a solo patrol officer relying only on my own instincts, my “gut.” Now, I am learning to rely on others, there instincts, and becoming part of a team of officers who work to keep the officers, offenders and unit safe. I have a small understanding and comfort level within the institution, more than what I had when I started, but not as much as a 5+ or 10+ year officer. So each day is one step closer to a better understanding of the career, and duties of a correctional officer.

Dr. Matthew J. Stiehm has received an Educational Doctorate from Argosy University, where the focus of his research was campus safety and security. He has a Master’s Degree of Criminal Justice from Central Missouri State University, with his final paper which focused on the investigation of child abuse and finally a Bachelors of Science from Wayne State College, Nebraska. He has served as a police officer in three states (CA, MN and NE), he keeps current on law enforcement trends most recently he conducted an 8 month study with Columbia Heights Police Department (MN) on Community Policing. He currently is a member of ILEETA, an Associate Member of the IACP, Support, and Police Executive Research Forum Subscribing Member. Dr. Stiehm is transitioning into a career with the correctional world, working as a corrections officer.