Behavioral Management Disorders and Serious Mental Illness in a Maximum-Security Prison: It Takes a "Healthily Codependent" Staff

By Holwager, James K. | Corrections Today, August-September 2012 | Go to article overview

Behavioral Management Disorders and Serious Mental Illness in a Maximum-Security Prison: It Takes a "Healthily Codependent" Staff


Holwager, James K., Corrections Today


In corrections, we manage offenders. To do so in a safe and humane manner that also prepares offenders for a return to society is central to most, if not all, mission statements. What staff have come to realize is that there is "nothing new under the sun." Most correctional departments have similar programs to manage offenders with mental health or behavioral problems that result in disruptive functioning.

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The management of problem offenders has been a long-term challenge in most correctional systems. All too often when there is not a program for problematic offenders, corrections professionals play "hot potato" and pass the offender around. This is a short-term solution for a long-term challenge. In Maryland, staff reviewed the continuum of offenders and identified those groups for which it did not have programming. As a result, two special programs were developed for two especially problematic groups. Change is difficult and will not successfully occur if the necessary tools are not provided. in this case, the change from a punitive approach for problem offenders to a problem solving, therapeutic approach required the training and retraining of multiple staff, excellent collaporation among severak duscuolines and the support of the administration.

Behavioral Management and Special Needs

The two groups of offenders that appear to be disproportionately responsible for uses of force and serious incident reports are offenders with a serious mental illness (SMI) and severe behavioral disorders. These two groups became central in the focus of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS). As a result, the Special Needs Unit (SNU) for SMI inmates and the Behavioral Management Program (BMP) for severely behaviorally disordered inmates were created. Behavioral programs and SNUs are not new and most correctional departments have versions of these programs. In the DPSCS, these programs were initiated at the all-male North Branch Correctional Institution (NBCI) in Cumberland, Md. The original units remain there; however, a second SNU was created at the Roxbury Correctional Unit in Hagerstown, Md. For the purpose of clarity, this article will focus solely on NBCI.

NBCI is a maximum-security institution located in the most western part of Maryland. The maximum-security status along with the architecture at NBCI facilitates effective management of the worst behavioral problems. Additionally, the tact that the facility is located in western Maryland has significantly reduced the number of offenders who attempt to fake mental illness. Many of the inmates come from the Baltimore and Jessup, Md., areas, and do not wish to be housed far from home as it does not facilitate travel for their visitors.

System Issues

It is commonly known within corrections that systems filter down from the top. In order for the aforementioned programs to be successful, it is essential to have support at every level of the chain of command. In Maryland, the secretary, commissioner, assistant commissioner and warden were all very much on board with the programs. This gave NBCI the backing to create the units and the support to initiate changes to security procedures. The best example of this was the suspension of segregation time.

Mentally ill inmates serve a higher proportion of their segregation time because they do not have the coping mechanisms to earn time reductions. There were several inmates with mental illness who were serving more than a year of segregation time with little likelihood of getting out. When it was proposed that inmates accepted into SNU would have their segregation time suspended, some of the staff greatly objected because they felt the offenders should have to serve their entire segregation sentences. BMP participants had the carrot at the end of the stick in that their segregation time could be reduced with completion of the program. …

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