Columbia, SC (WLTX) – A group of corrections officers from the South Carolina Department of Corrections were the first in the nation to go through a training program on how to handle mentally ill inmates.
The training program is through the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a subset of the U.S. Department of Justice.
It comes after a judge ruled the corrections department does not properly care for mentally ill inmates. Even with the training, some are saying more needs to be done.
"Well obviously this is a drop in the bucket, compared to what needs to happen, but every bit of progress, we're positive about," said Mandy Medlock, Director of Operations for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Mid-Carolina.
Medlock's group helped to organize the lawsuit.
The group plans to offer 40 corrections officers training sometime in the fall, said NAMI state Director Bill Lindsey. Lindsey also said he supported the effort of the SCDC to train its corrections staff.
John McClean and Lt. Efrem Jennings are both corrections officer, and both went through the training.
"The scenarios that they played out were very, very similar to what we deal with on an everyday basis," McClean said. "It's not as cut and dry as yes and no."
Corrections officers who have undergone the training will now wear identifying patches as part of their uniforms.
Jennings said the skills he learned have already come into use, allowing him to act on the recent training, which was completed over one 40 hour week in June, a few times since being back at work.
Jennings said he learned to talk and use "intervention, as far as talking to the inmates" and "calming them down."
"We take two steps back before we take two steps forward," Jennings said.
The judge's ruling said inmates in the department's care were given a "lack of basic mental health care." The judge wrote the department's mental health program is "substantially understaffed," which State Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling said he's worked to fix since being confirmed for the post in February.
"We needed to train our officers on how to interact better with mental health inmates," said Stirling. "We've also reviewed people that are in administrative segregation. We've actually let a number of folks that were in administrative segregation out, and they're getting the treatment they need."
More than 21,000 inmates are housed in the state's prisons, Stirling said, and about 3,100 of them are identified as mentally ill.
A spokesperson for the corrections department said many of the officers trained in the program will be posted at a new "self-injurious behavioral unit" at the end of July.
The Department of Corrections is appealing the judge's ruling on treatment of inmates to the South Carolina Supreme Court. Both parties in the lawsuit are currently in confidential mediation, and expect to have a plan to address some of the issues in the lawsuit by the end of the summer, Stirling said.
Dan Westbrook, one of the attorney's that brought the lawsuit , said in a statement to News19 "Any training that correctional officers receive is helpful, of course, but to be adequate, the training must be comprehensive, ongoing, and mandatory for all officers who have contact with mentally ill inmates."