Joseph Galanek, a mental health researcher for the Case Western Reserve University, spent nine months in an Oregon maximum security prison to learn first-hand how the prison manages inmates with mental illnesses. During 430 hours of observation and interviews, he learned that inmates were treated humanely and that security was more manageable when cell block officers were trained to identify symptoms of mental illness as well as how to respond to it.
He discovered that officers used their authority with flexibility and discretion within the rigid prison structure, to deal with mentally ill inmates. As the number of prisoners with severe mental illness in prisons is increasing, efforts need to be made by all prison staff to ensure that this segment of the prison population is given appropriate mental health care and safety.
Galanek watched how administrative policies and cultural values allowed positive relationships to develop between officers and prisoners diagnosed with severe mental illnesses among the prison’s 2,000 inmates.
Officers received training in identifying symptoms of mental illness, which in turn, led to better security, safety and humane treatment of potentially volatile inmates. Officers were allowed to use their discretion when handling certain situations.
Prisoners are required to work 40 hours at an assigned job but one inmate chose to remain in his cell instead of reporting to work – a prison offense. The inmate told the officer that he was experiencing auditory hallucinations so, instead of sending the prisoner to a disciplinary unit, the officer allowed him to remain in his cell until the hallucinations passed.
In another case, a correctional officer confronted a violent prisoner who was not taking his medication and had begun smashing a TV and a mirror as well as threatening other prisoners. Instead of disciplinary confinement, the officer conferred with mental health workers who sent the prisoner to the inpatient psychiatric unit to get him back on his meds.
Prisoners are not allowed to loiter nor talk to other inmates outside their cells. Once, a high-functioning prisoner with a bipolar disorder was working as a janitor; a job that allowed him to talk to other mentally ill inmates and through those conversations, he was able to let officers know when other prisoners were exhibiting symptoms of their mental illness. That information allowed officers to address potential problems fast and decrease security risks.
Access to this kind of prison culture is unusual but Galanek was uniquely prepared to navigate this prison for his research as he’d been a mental health specialist from 1996 to 2003 and was uniquely prepared to navigate the prison for his research. ‘They trusted me,’ he said. ‘I knew how to move, talk and interact with staff as well as inmates in the prison.’