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‘We Felt We Weren’t Qualified To Be Making These Decisions’

A former corrections officer talks about her frustration with the lack of mental health care in jails.

By Jacquie Lee, The Huffington Post

Melanie Bailey, 44, was a corrections officer at Lancaster County Correctional Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, until 2013, when she left to run her own company full time. The company, AliveLock, sells monitors that track inmate vitals signs, which she says can help reduce the number of unnecessary jail deaths. She talked to The Huffington Post for our ongoing series of stories about deaths in jails across the country. 

As told to Jacquie Lee.

“I started working at the county jail in 1995 as a correctional officer ― just your basic entry level position. I became sergeant there, where I supervised staff and an entire shift. And then I took a position called a ‘Correction Specialist One,’ which dealt with mental health issues within the facility. It was our job to interview anyone the correctional staff placed on suicide watch or behavioral watch statuses, and we determined through that process whether they needed to be on suicide watch or not.

You’re taking a person who’s having a huge crisis in their life and you’re stripping them of everything comforting.

When I was doing that it was a position that required no formal mental health education or training. ... So I was making decisions every day where I would go in and talk to a person in a very informal way about just basically how they were feeling. But in the mid-2000s, I became incredibly frustrated. People ― myself and other people that were within that agency ― were very concerned and voiced our concerns to our administration, that we felt we weren’t qualified to be making these decisions and that there were a lot of problems with us making those kinds of decisions. I quit that job because I just wasn’t comfortable doing it anymore and went back to being a sergeant.

There’s not enough resources for mental health. Jails and prisons in the U.S. are never designed to become effective mental health facilities. You don’t have the people, but you also don’t have the kind of infrastructure in place. ... All these things become a problem if you have somebody who’s suicidal or significantly mentally ill in that environment. When somebody makes a suicide attempt or it is determined that they need to go on some sort of suicide watch they’re ― generally speaking ― strip searched or placed in what is commonly called a ‘suicide smock’ in this industry. [They’re put in] a cell by themselves, in an observation unit, with nothing else.

Jails and prisons in the U.S. are never designed to become effective mental health facilities.

So you’re taking a person who’s having a huge crisis in their life and you’re stripping them of everything comforting, and putting them away from everyone that they could possible talk to and giving them nothing ― not even a book. From the correctional side, it’s about containing them alive and keeping them safe. But the problem that creates is that any inmate with any experience in the system knows that. So it creates this reality of the people who are probably the most at-risk not wanting to tell you, because if they know anything about the process they know that they’re going to end up in that situation. And it’s uncomfortable. It’s cold sometimes. You don’t have clothes. You don’t have underwear. You don’t have basic hygiene products in your cell. You don’t get to shower whenever you want to. You don’t get to see anybody else.

It’s a much bigger problem than what each agency can do. The reality is it’s a breakdown of the entire mental health system in this country. … A significant amount of people that jails are being asked to keep in custody are people who have fallen through the cracks of mental health treatment in each state. They tend to not be incredibly dangerous people. They tend to be people who catch the eye of law enforcement or people in the community and get picked up for petty or nuisance crimes. … And you’re asking jail staff, corrections officers ― who to a large degree are not the best trained to deal with these people ― to watch them and care for people who probably shouldn’t be in jail in the first place.”

Originally published by The Huffington Post on August 24, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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