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Inmate Mental Health Crises: What New Officers Should Know

Inmate mental health is an ongoing stressor within today’s correctional landscape. While experienced staff might already have strategies for handling inmates experiencing mental health crises, new officers may need guidance.
Alyssa Pfaff
Alyssa Pfaff
Kenzie Koch | Sr. Marketing Specialist
Mark Cowley | Director of JailOps

Taking care of your mental health as a corrections officer is difficult enough, let alone managing inmates’ emotional wellness too. Correctional facilities often house individuals with varying levels of mental health illness, with 44% of those in jails and 37% in prisons experiencing these challenges.

While correctional officers are not expected to be mental health care professionals, they should have the knowledge and skills to take control of emotionally heightened and potentially dangerous environments. Veteran staff with years of experience under their belt are more likely to be familiar with de-escalation tactics. Whereas new or inexperienced officers often feel unprepared to navigate the choppy waters of inmate mental health.

When working in corrections, there is little room for error. Regardless of their level of experience, staff can't be left clueless on how to manage mental health challenges their inmates may experience. When staff don't know how to react properly to an emergency, it puts both the staff and the rest of the inmate population at risk.

In a correctional environment where inmate mental health scenarios are so prevalent and are suspectable of escalating quickly, officers need to know how to identify a threat and quickly de-escalate. This blog covers key tips for new officers to keep in mind while approaching an inmate mental health crisis.

Try to Keep Emotions in Check

How an officer reacts to chaos inside a jail or prison boils down to the mentality and emotions they bring into the situation. When an inmate is experiencing a mental health crisis, officers need to know how to stay composed and exercise emotional discipline while responding.

If an officer quickly dives in with an intense reaction, their decisions are more likely to be drastic and impulsive rather than calculated and intentional. Inmates can gauge when an officer is in panic mode, which can heighten the inmate's emotions and increase the tension for everyone involved. 

How an officer responds to an emergency is the first and foremost important step in defusing the chaos. Some considerations for officers to keep in mind while identifying and addressing an unexpected and alarming situation are:

  • Keep calm: A calm and collected demeanor can significantly de-escalate a tense situation. Officers should be encouraged to step back, take deep breaths, and assess the situation before giving a reassuring presence. 

  • Practice active listening: Staff should be equipped with basic active listening skills so they can avoid interrupting, validate inmate feelings, and repeat to ensure concise understanding. When communicating with an inmate or another officer, misinterpretation can result in an even bigger mess. Say an officer indicates that an altercation has broken out in Pod D but you hear Pod E, your response time will be delayed and that situation will likely escalate. Repeating back what another officer or inmate says helps to ensure you’re hearing them correctly.

  • Communicate clearly: Jargon and legalese can be confusing. Staff need to use clear, concise language while speaking slowly and directly to both inmates and other staff. In high-stress situations, it’s easy to get caught up and speak quickly or unclearly but this only further confuses situations. Another way to decrease tension is to focus on de-escalation rather than confrontation. When you’re coming in hot, inmates are going to become more guarded and aggressive in their response.

  • Be aware of body language: Correctional staff need to be aware of their body language towards inmates and other staff members. Avoid crossing arms or standing too close, as this can feel threatening. Maintaining eye contact and using open gestures can project empathy. And vice-versa, if you’re shifty with eye contact or look overly guarded, inmates may assume you lack confidence and may use that to their advantage.

Approaching a mental health crisis with a collected mindset allows officers to assess a situation with a calculated plan, resulting in more intentional decisions and effective results. 

Identifying and Managing Inmate Triggers

A critical step in adequately managing inmate mental health crises is recognizing what could potentially provoke an inmate to become agitated. Many factors that come with the environment of a jail or prison can trigger an inmate (it’s difficult not to feel a sensory overload with the noises and smells inside of jail). On top of that, there are many outside elements that can also trigger an inmate such as:

  • Missing the birth or birthday of a child

  • Missing an anniversary to a spouse

  • Missing the funeral of a loved one

Aside from missing big family or friend-related milestones, holidays can be another large inmate trigger. Separation can understandably cause inmates to feel depressed, isolated, guilty, and unimportant. 

Whatever they may be, understanding triggers can often help officers adjust their approach to inmates in distress. Understanding inmate triggers means understanding the inmate. Officers see their inmates day in and day out, and because of that, an inmate's change in demeanor is fairly obvious. It is important for officers to notice this change in demeanor and then follow up with the inmate to determine the root or trigger of its cause. 

Once an officer has acknowledged and identified the issue, they can then determine the best course of action to ensure the trigger doesn’t spiral out of control and lead to the inmate acting out. This could be done by exercising empathy about the situation and letting the inmate know you hear and understand them. If possible, officers should consider: 

  • Moving the inmate to a quieter location to let them process their situation

  • Allowing an extra phone call or video visit to let the inmate talk with their loved ones

  • Providing inmates’ families a list of additional items that can be purchased through the jail but may not be on commissary, and allow these items to be delivered during holidays

  • Allowing families to purchase or pick up preapproved holiday cards

  • Working with the facility’s food provider to allow holiday meals

Whenever possible, offer inmates choices during emotional interactions. This empowers them and reduces feelings of helplessness. Simple questions like, "Would you like to sit or stand?," or "Would you prefer to talk to me or the nurse?," or “What would you like me to do?” are small but effective ways to give an inmate the power of choice.

When an inmate feels trapped or like they cannot do anything, their emotions might heighten or they’ll shut down, making it more difficult to navigate the situation. Feeling in control of the situation will hopefully help ground the inmate and de-escalate the situation. 

As Jail Administrators, we focused heavily on training our staff to be empathetic to the inmates, especially around holidays. Not all staff are immune to feeling completely separated and isolated from spouses, children, and family through holidays. We made sure our inmates were taken care of to the best of our ability.

Mark Cowley
Director of JailOps

The Importance of Documentation

Not only should staff be trained to document all interactions with inmates in general, but especially in a crisis. Having detailed notes of what exactly happened during an inmate emergency provides several layers of protection including:

  • Accuracy: Detailed documentation gives staff a level of defensibility if legal liabilities were ever brought into question. For example, if an inmate were to claim that an officer handled a crisis poorly, a detailed report of the incident would help determine whether the inmate’s claim was accurate or not.

  • Officer accountability: Documentation created by the officer(s) who were on-scene during the emergency serves as evidence of the officer(s) presence and response to the situation.  

  • Policy compliance: Proper recording ensures that the actions taken by the staff align with the institution’s policies and protocols.

  • Assessment for improvement: Understanding how officers responded to an emergency allows for a thorough review of the incident and can be used to analyze and improve crisis intervention strategies and training programs.

  • Pattern identification: Clear and concise documentation allows an effective way for the administration to look back and identify possible behavioral patterns. For example, a detailed incident report could reveal how there is one inmate who typically has a mental health crisis around holidays, leading staff to assume that holidays are a trigger for this inmate and then better prepare for the next approaching holiday. 

Of course, an officer can’t document what is happening during an emergency, because they are busy responding to the emergency (duh!). That’s why they must be trained to understand that documentation is the very next step to take following the completion of an incident. 

Once an emergency has been de-escalated, all inmates are where they belong, and all officers can finally breathe, it’s then time to reflect and recount what happened. This should include leading up to the event, what happened during the event, who responded to the event, and what followed after the event. Sometimes, these can be traumatic events to replay in one’s head, but taking the time to reflect also provides time to process what happened and talk to a teammate or counselor for support. 

There are many ways to document what transpired following an event. Some agencies rely on pen and paper, some rely on guard tour systems, but most rely on advanced inmate tracking technology, such as GUARDIAN RFID

When grasping the aftermath of an inmate crisis, the last thing an officer will want to do is try to find a pen and piece of paper and then write down everything they just witnessed. When reflecting on what just happened, officers' hands are probably still shaking. 

Instead, a quick, simple, and convenient way to document the event would be for an officer to reach down to their holster and grab their handheld device. Yes, this exists, and it’s called a SPARTAN. Officers can use their SPARTAN to document as extensively and as detailed as they wish. They can even use the device camera to take photos and videos for digital evidence. And if their hands are still shaking, the SPARTAN empowers officers to use talk-to-text recording (allowing 7,999 characters, to be exact). 

While GUARDIAN RFID tracking capabilities can certainly be used to document the details of an inmate's mental health crisis, it can also be used to document all other non-emergency-related activities such as security rounds, meal offerings, court transports, and so on. Utilizing a data-driven system that maximizes outcomes to ensure a strong level of documentation helps mitigate risks in correctional facilities, both in terms of safety and legality. 

You’re Not Alone, It's a Team Effort

Effectively managing an inmate emergency is rarely ever a one-officer job. Whether you’ve been working in corrections for fifteen years or fifteen days, the support of your team is paramount when navigating an unexpected mental health crisis. Staff should feel empowered to call for backup when warranted. Whether they feel unsafe, unprepared, or it is beyond their comfort level, the more support officers have, the better. 

Coping with the aftermath of a mental health crisis can't be done with just the snap of your fingers. Officers need their team members to talk through the situation they just experienced and express the emotions they're feeling. Having a bridge of trust between staff helps instill a united front. This helps to remind officers that they're not alone in this profession and that all the weight doesn't fall on just their shoulders.

As crucial as it is to help inmates with their mental health challenges, officer mental health is also a top priority.

Corrections officers are hired and trained to address complex challenges across correctional facilities, making them uniquely positioned to support inmates suffering from mental health struggles. This is why officers of all calibers need to have the knowledge, tools, and resources to effectively identify, approach, and execute a safe outcome for an inmate in distress.

By equipping staff, especially the new boots, with the right tools and fostering a collaborative environment, officers are empowered to navigate inmate mental health challenges with confidence. This promotes a safer and more humane environment for both inmates and officers within your correctional facility.


SAMHSA, 2024. About Criminal and Juvenile Justice. 

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