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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato


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Thad Shunkwiler, assistant professor in Health Science, helps Blue Earth County jailers recognize signs of mental illness in inmates

With mental health resources lagging well behind the number of inmates in need of the advanced care, jail staff are increasingly tasked with recognizing and responding to mental health crises.

By Brian Arola Photo by Pat Christman

Thad Shunkwiler, assistant professor of Health Science, performs role play with Sgt. Jamie Thiesse aimed at teaching Blue Earth County jail staff to recognize symptoms of mental illness in inmates waiting to be transferred.

MANKATO — County jail correctional officers are among those feeling the strain of Minnesota’s overstretched mental health system.

It's not uncommon for inmates deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial to languish in jail cells for weeks waiting for a spot to open up at an appropriate mental health facility.

With mental health resources lagging well behind the number of inmates in need of the advanced care, jail staff are increasingly tasked with recognizing and responding to mental health crises.

An ill inmate languishing in a cell while their condition is sorted out by the court isn’t anyone’s idea of an ideal situation for the individual, their fellow inmates or the jail staff. But it’s often the reality, which necessitates more training for correctional officers who encounter the inmate multiple times per day.

Blue Earth County jail staff received an annual refresher course in mental health recognition and response Tuesday and Wednesday. Led by the jail’s part-time mental health professional Thad Shunkwiler, he said the training is a response to jails becoming “pseudo treatment facilities” while inmates await more appropriate treatment placement.

“We’re entering a time where we’re asking correctional officers to not only be security guards and agents for the facility, but to also have a mental health background,” he said.

He said the lack of mental health treatment beds statewide is partly responsible for the longer stays.

“You have sicker inmates doubled down with inmates who have to stay in jail longer,” he said.

More responsibility is then put on the jail’s corrections officers to work with the ill inmates. Joslyn Lachmiller, assistant Blue Earth County jail administrator, said the training helps officers work through what they deal with on a near-daily basis.

“If they have questions about things that happened in the past, it’s good to have that open dialogue,” she said.

In a perfect situation, monitoring of the inmates would begin at intake with the individual reporting their diagnosis and medications. When they don’t self-report, the officer’s ability to recognize any signs of an illness becomes important.

It gets especially tricky when an inmate doesn’t display any behavioral signs of mental illness, like someone with a mood or anxiety disorder who isn't acting out, Shunkwiler said.

“It’s much more difficult to identify those who don’t have the behavioral components who still need access to care,” he said.

The training of about 16 officers Tuesday — followed by the other half Wednesday — included going through the signs of different mental illnesses and suicide. An inmate who talks about giving away his possessions, for instance, could be flagged to the medical staff for suicide monitoring.

Shunkwiler, who also works full time as an assistant professor in health sciences at Minnesota State University, involved some staff in role-play scenarios designed to show how the staff should talk to an inmate going through a crisis. He played the role of an inmate feeling suicidal, while officers talked through how they'd respond.

Even though they receive training touching on the topic, officers are not asked to treat mental illnesses. Rather, they're asked to recognize the signs in order to alert a professional like Shunkwiler to step in. 

One uniformed officer who participated in the exercise, Timothy Swope, said staff might deal with an inmate claiming to be in crisis on any given round. The issue won’t always be serious, but he said they’re taught not to take lightly the health concerns of inmates.

“You have limited time and limited resources, but you still have to treat it like the real thing every time,” he said.

Fellow corrections officer Sgt. Jamie Thiesse said responding to inmate’s mental health needs isn’t a new part of the job. The issue is it's seeming to become more and more necessary.

“It’s always been our job,” she said. “It’s just the individuals with mental health issues seem to be increasing.”

The Minnesota Department of Corrections hasn't yet collected data from jails on how many inmates are assessed for mental illnesses, according to a Legislative Auditor report on mental health services in county jails released earlier this year. The report did, however, reveal that sheriff's report about one-third of inmates in county jails may be on medication for mental illnesses.

Among the recommendations outlined in the report was the need to smooth the judicial process for transferring individuals deemed incompetent to stand trial into treatment facilities for rehabilitation. The Legislature already tried to address this issue with its “48-hour law” requiring inmates to be transferred to state psychiatric facilities within two days after a judge commits them.

The law is hardly working as intended. Lachmiler said the wait may have once been close to two days, but it's only gotten longer through the years.

Shunkwiler said the issue is even more pronounced at rural county jails with even less access to mental health services nearby.

Read the full story in the Mankato Free Press.

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