By Nadine Ono.

Last year, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the Riverside University Health System’s Behavioral Health Department partnered to create a better system of care for individuals with mental health needs incarcerated in their jails. In doing so, they developed the Core Team, new team of deputies specifically trained to work alongside the behavioral health specialists embedded in their mental health units.

This distinct partnership is dedicated to working with this population in custody and increasing their success both inside the jails and when they are released. It was initiated by a lawsuit and a court-ordered cap on the jail population. It also coincided with the release of a jail utilization studyconducted by CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative.

All the deputies in the Core Team have volunteered to go through the training, including their supervisor, Riverside County Correctional Sergeant Jasmine Rodriguez. “You start from where they don’t have the education needed to deal with the situation, they don’t understand the mental illnesses or how to de-escalate.” But after they are trained, she noted, “It’s impressive to see them not have to use force or not have to see inmates fight because they can go in and fix the problems even before there is a problem.”

Riverside County Correctional Deputy Steven Benisek is a member of the Core Team at the Robert Presley Detention Center. He recalled one inmate with severe mental illness who was cycling through the safety cell two to three times a week. “I was doing pill call and he told myself, the clinician and medical personnel, ‘I’m starting to get suicidal thoughts, I’m going to hurt myself.’”

The clinician spoke to the inmate and realized that seeing the sun through the window every morning triggered him. Benisek added, “We came up with a plan, so when he starts feeling like that, we block out the sun and he hasn’t been in the safety cell since. He’s now programming. He comes out every day, he’s med compliant and he says ‘Good morning’ to me every day. It’s a 100 percent turnaround.”

Core Team members are assigned to the mental health units at both Presley Detention Center in Riverside and the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning. They have the same shifts with the same partners so the inmates and the deputies are familiar with each other.

Riverside Country Correctional Deputy Krystal Doyle explained, “It’s a consistency and knowing that we’re there to help them.” She added, “Almost on a daily basis you have to de-escalate situations. Once you learn how to talk with the inmates and having a rapport with them, you’re able to learn when they’re starting to go downhill or what some of their triggers are so you can try to either see if you can get them help or, if you know that inmate, try to talk them down, so it doesn’t escalate to anything further.”

Additionally, the Core Team and the clinicians meet at every shift change to discuss the inmates who are deteriorating or having problems so that their care is consistent with the incoming shift.

“You work there every single day, you start to learn all the inmates, so at shift change, you give your pass down and also document everything throughout the day,” said Benisek. “They meet with the PM clinicians and the medical staff and go over what happened because each one gets their own pass down. And we all share it with our meeting, so everyone’s on the same page every day.”

The deputies on the Core Team see that they are not only helping the inmates with mental health needs in their care, but they are also improving their communications and problem-solving skills, which will help later in their careers. And when the current deputies are promoted and new deputies are trained, the jails may see a change.

“That’s one of the biggest benefits of the Core Team in the housing units,” said Riverside County Lieutenant Harold Reed. “It will change the culture throughout the jail to be a little bit more understanding, talk a bit more to the inmates, not escalate certain situations.”

“It’s been a positive program,” said Doyle. “I’ve seen a lot of inmates grow. Ones who have been in there may not have been educated on their mental health illness and this program has definitely been able to educate them, get them on their feet, give them to confidence to take control and be successful.”

Rodriguez agreed. “We’re here to provide safety and security, not just to our inmates, but to the public outside and understanding that we’re a part something big. We’re rehabilitating and reducing recidivism, so they’re going out to be productive members of society.”

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Originally posted at CA Fwd.