Megan Weinzierl was near the end of her shift guarding the maximum-security prison in Oak Park Heights when an alarm went off in a cell block.
An inmate who had returned from solitary confinement was kicking at his cell door and yelling at corrections officers. Within moments, his neighbors joined in the ruckus.
Weinzierl, a 25-year-old corrections officer, approached the man’s cell and introduced herself. Instead of responding with force, she empathized with him as he told her he was struggling to cope with the death of a family member. She calmly acknowledged his feelings and slowly talked him down.
A crisis can unfold at any given moment within the walls of Minnesota’s state prisons. Corrections officers like Weinzierl, who are trained in crisis intervention, must rely on their words to defuse tense encounters and assist inmates with a mental illness.
“If you have a person go up to them — one-on-one — and talk to them for 15 minutes, chances are … they’re going to comply a lot more than if you have all these other (officers) rushing in to try to get somebody to do something,” Weinzierl said.
About a quarter of all corrections officers — 493 to be exact — are trained in crisis intervention, according to the Department of Corrections. Meanwhile, about 25 percent of men and 65 percent of women in state prisons have some sort of mental illness.
DOC officials say the training needs to be ramped up for more officers to receive it. The agency puts on a voluntary, weeklong crisis intervention course three times per year but can only accommodate up to 30 people per session.
“It’s our goal to get to a point … that we ultimately get everybody trained,” said DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell. “It’s exactly what we’re trying to model in the way that we work with people, that we resolve problems and address issues through a meaningful engagement.”
An Intensive Training
A new class of corrections officers was schooled on the basics of crisis intervention inside the Rush City prison last month. Their first day of training included talks about mental health and de-escalation techniques followed by role-playing with actors portraying inmates in crisis.
In one classroom, an actor in jeans and a blue button-down frantically told a corrections officer he needed to report a terrorist plot to federal authorities. The man frantically paced around and raised his voice when the officer tried to interject. Within minutes, the officer told his peers he was stuck.
In another scenario, an officer was tasked with getting a delusional man out of his cell. The actor rocked back and forth while pulling his hair and muttering to himself. He whispered that there were creatures under his bed that wanted to get him. The officer referred to the man by his first name to build rapport and brought him back to reality by checking under his bed and reminding him they were in the Rush City prison.
The skits were based on real incidents that occurred inside Minnesota prisons, said Patti Kressly, who led the training. By the end of the 40-hour course, officers were able to distinguish signs of mental illness from bad behavior.
“They’re going to change the lens of which they look at behaviors,” said Kressly, president of Pro-Crisis, a crisis-intervention training firm from River Falls, Wis.
The DOC put the course together with the help of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota and the National Institute of Corrections. It differs from crisis-intervention training for police in that it recognizes that corrections officers deal with the same offenders each day.
Oak Park Heights corrections officer Glenn Lisowy says the training goes beyond helping inmates in crisis. It helps officers build rapport and tap into the honor and integrity of all offenders.
“Once you start getting below the surface of guard-to-inmate, and you start talking to these guys like they’re men, you can get a lot more accomplished,” Lisowy said. “I try to talk to a man not as an inmate … but if I found out he’s a father, or he’s a husband, or his brother got killed.”
Why More Officers Aren't Trained
A total of 621 officers have been trained in crisis intervention since it began in 2008. Just 493 of them are active.
That puts the department far from its ideal goal of training each of its nearly 2,000 officers.
Timing is part of the reason that more officers have not been trained.
There are just three crisis-intervention training courses per year. They are open only by application to officers who have worked with the DOC for at least three years. And the department risks leaving its prisons vulnerable if it lets too many officers into a course at one time.
The training is not cheap, either. Several actors, coaches and speakers are brought in for the weeklong course, which costs about $13,000.
Rethinking the Process
Christen Donley, state program administrator senior for the DOC’s re-entry services unit, helps organize the training. She thinks there is a more efficient way to do it.
“We’ve been talking and having conversations about the potential of having CIT maybe one day be a part of (training) academy. That’s something that I would like to see,” Donley said.
Currently, training academies for new corrections officers are held eight times per year and last three weeks. By tacking on time for crisis intervention, the department would train every new officer.
Schnell is on board with that idea.
“The strongest weapon that correctional officers have is these de-escalation and communication skills,” Schnell said. “We would like to see it become something that CIT is just a part of how we bring people on.”