AP NEWS

State corrections chief: Do mentally ill belong in prison?

February 19, 2019

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota’s new corrections commissioner said he plans to draw on his training in social work to address one of the biggest challenges facing prison systems across the country: inmates with mental illness.

Minnesota Department of Corrections commissioner Paul Schnell said the department needs more officers to be trained to handle mental health issues. Schnell also said he also questions whether many of the inmates with mental illness should be in prison at all, Minnesota Public Radio News reported.

“I’ve seen some of the people that we have in our prisons that are really sick, are really decompensated,” he said. “And granted they’ve done, in some cases, really horrific things. But I think to myself: ‘Should these really mentally ill people — these people who are in a really tough situation — should they be in a prison?’”

Schnell has a degree in social work and he spent the first 10 years of his career working in community-based correctional programs. He spent the last 25 years working in law enforcement, including as a police chief in Hastings and Maplewood.

Prison systems across the U.S. have struggled for years with how to manage inmates with mental illness. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that as many as half of all people held in jails and prisons have mental health issues.

Joe Miller was a corrections officer at the Stillwater state prison for 13 years before quitting after a colleague died in an inmate assault last summer. Miller said guards aren’t trained to deal with mental illness, and that there aren’t enough officers to do the work properly.

He argued that inmates with mental illness should be moved to a separate facility. Schnell said that isn’t possible.

Angela Hook, an inmate at the Shakopee prison, said she often sees guards talking to mentally ill inmates in ways that could trigger trauma, and sometimes those inmates are put into solitary confinement.

“The regular officers need to be aware of how to recognize the mental health needs, recognize the triggers, maybe even have some notations in their system on particular inmates,” Hook said.

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Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mprnews.org