The role of corrections officers in recent times has evolved into providing mental health services, according to officials from Valley prisons.
It’s a change Northumberland County Jail Warden Tom Reisinger didn’t expect when he started in the federal prison system more than 25 years ago. Reisinger said corrections officers need to be aware of the mental health of the inmates they supervise. Union County Sheriff Sam Kranzel had the same thoughts.
“That’s almost 60-70 percent of your job. The officers are the first line of defense,” Reisinger said. “Living in a federal facility, not a day goes by that I don’t spend half a day with psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health professionals because we have crisis after crisis after crisis. You’d think you were trying to keep 1,200 men from killing each other. It’s not like that. Medication -drugs get stronger, more powerful, and homemade. It just destroys these people.”
Hiring more mental health workers would cost money for a district already struggling to balance its budget. Jails, including Northumberland County, have experienced staff shortages, and the field of mental health professionals has a shortage of qualified employees. There’s also a high turnover rate in corrections, meaning new officers are constantly being hired and need training in mental health and bystanders, Reisinger said.
“I would say that mental health has overtaken medical problems today,” Reisinger said. “Mental health is the tip of the spear problem.”
Kranzel agreed with Reisinger, saying corrections officers often act as “informal advisors” to inmates.
“They do it every day, in every jail across the country,” he said.
Kara Heitzman, a mental health counselor with PrimeCare Medical, said offenders are assessed immediately upon entering the jail in Coal Township. They were asked whether they had suicidal thoughts or a history of suicide in the last 30 days. His answer to the suicide intake screening will determine whether he should talk to Heitzman.
“I met with them the first seven days they were here,” Heitzman said. “I go through a mental health intake with them and get their history. We’ll talk about medication. If they’re on medication, we’ll get them to see a psychiatrist and we’ll keep them off the medication.”
When someone is identified as being at risk of suicide, they are placed on suicide watch based on the severity of their ideation. Level one, those who plan to kill themselves, are placed in safety smocks and monitored cells. Level two is placed in jail uniform but is monitored regularly, Heitzman said.
“The mental health system in any facility is limited,” Heitzman said. “Most of the time we don’t have enough doctors for the inmate population. We do crisis management and psychological services. If someone is watching suicide, they are seeing mental health every day. .”
People with substance abuse disorders are also assessed. He discussed his skills and support system when he was released from jail, he said.
“I see a lot of inmates, a large percentage of jails, pretty regularly,” he said. “Mental health (services) are completely voluntary unless they’re watching suicide when they first come in. We’re still monitoring to make sure people are stable and not regressing in this kind of environment.”
Reisinger said the jail has beds designed to prevent suicide. Each staff member has a pocket-sized suicide prevention guide that they must carry with them at all times. All staff have recently been trained in negligence and intentional indifference training, which is defined as “a conscious or reckless disregard of the consequences of one’s actions or omissions. It entails something more than negligence, but satisfied by something less than actions or omissions for the very purpose of causing harm or knowing that harm will result.”
Inmates with serious mental illness
Joe Labosky, director of mental health for Northumberland County Behavioral Health/Intellectual Disability Services, said a meeting is held every Wednesday morning to review a list of inmates identified as having a serious mental illness. Attending the meeting were representatives from the Northumberland County Jail, Northumberland County Adult Probation, Primecare Medical, Northumberland County Behavioral Health, Northumberland County D&A and Central Susquehanna Opportunity.
“Staff from Primecare Medical review the status of everyone on the list detailing mental status, behavioral issues, medication compliance and if any medical issues are ongoing or need to be addressed,” Labosky said. “Also, what is discussed if necessary is release planning for inmates who will be released in the future and what to do about the housing plan. as successful as possible.”
When necessary, workers from the Mental Health and Drug & Alcohol departments complete assessments to determine the need for mental health or substance abuse services and help refer them to those services if needed, he said.
“Northumberland County BH/IDS recently contracted with an individual to conduct anger management groups in the jail,” Labosky said. “Currently, the individual facilitates two anger management groups every Tuesday and Thursday. Also, when there is a need, we can facilitate the mental health commitment process in the jail in collaboration with Primecare Medical. This process can lead to the inmate being transferred from the jail to a forensic state hospital or in rare cases to a civilian state hospital for the treatment of mental illness.”
They are in Union County
The procedures are the same in Union County. When people are brought in, they fill out a psychological questionnaire to determine their past medical and mental health history. Each inmate is seen by the CMSU program, which provides a variety of mental health, intellectual disability and drug & alcohol services to residents of Columbia, Montour, Snyder and Union, Kranzel said.
If the inmate scores high and is considered a suicide risk, he is placed in preventive clothing. If they are on probation, they are placed in a cell under 24-hour surveillance with corrections officers checking in every 15 minutes, Kranzel said.
Inmates have church services, drug and alcohol counseling, anger management classes and mental health counseling through CMSU, he said.
Correctional officers receive daily training on mental health issues. New employees receive training when they are hired, he said.
Barriers to care
Heitzman said a lack of community resources, including outpatient facilities or inpatient mental health facilities, is often a barrier to inmates seeking mental health services. If they seek inpatient treatment for mental health, they must go through court approval.
“These people really want these services but have limited access to them,” Heitzman said. “A lot of people don’t drive so they don’t have transportation to the place.
Reisinger said it was difficult to get them into service, especially with the COVID-19 protocols.
“It’s tighter and more regulated to get in,” he said. “Covid plays a role. They have to be COVID-negative when you transfer and COVID-negative when you hit the door. Sometimes it changes in the span of the drive. With the world today, the drug epidemic today and mental health problems today, I thought there would be facilities (health mentally) everywhere. Since I took this job, I have found it extremely difficult to get people where they need to be.”
Even when people are released, services are limited. There is a “lack” of mental health services, Heitzman said.
“When you have people leave here, they have mental health problems, substance abuse, they go to jail. It’s a trifecta of obstacles against individuals trying to improve their lives,” said Heitzman. “They reach out for services and people look negatively at it. People can come to people looking at services, saying it will be a tax dollar to pay that. They are less likely to reach out. They can not find a “Employment based on his accusations. They fall into a cycle of doing what they have to do (criminal behavior) because they feel they have no other choice.”
Kranzel said the state needs more mental health treatment facilities than prisons. The corrections system shouldn’t be responsible for mental health problems like it already is, he said.
“We need more mental health professionals so that inmates, and non-inmates, can seek treatment,” he said.