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Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Nov. 28, 2023

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Training helps officers deal with mental illness at jail

4 Photos
Actress Angie Westerberg runs through a scenario for Lincoln County Sheriff's Deputy Tom Sherbon during a comprehensive mental health training exercise at the Clark County Jail Work Center on Thursday.
Actress Angie Westerberg runs through a scenario for Lincoln County Sheriff's Deputy Tom Sherbon during a comprehensive mental health training exercise at the Clark County Jail Work Center on Thursday. Photo Gallery

Barely a second after the words “What’s your last name?” left Clark County corrections Officer Mike Osilla’s lips, the woman on the other side of the table began to scream.

The woman, an actress dressed in a Clark County jail shirt, swore at Osilla, calling him a pig, telling him about her brother killed by a police officer and refusing to answer his questions. Osilla froze at first, then slowly helped calm the woman until she was able to speak.

At 48, Osilla is pursuing a second career as a corrections officer, and the situation he acted out Thursday is one he could face every day booking suspects into the Clark County Jail.

For the first time, the Corrections Division of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office hosted a weeklong, 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training exercise for officers like Osilla, as well as representatives from a number of other county and regional agencies. This week’s pilot program represents some of the first steps for the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to improve how its officers approach mental illness in the jail.

“It’s really enlightening as far as what I’m stepping into,” Osilla said. “I really have little experience with mental health issues.”

The training was developed after Sgt. Jack Huff, mental health coordinator John Furze and mental health advocate Don Greenwood, a past president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, traveled to the National Institute of Corrections Training Center in Aurora, Colo. The three spent 40 hours in lectures, hands-on training and role-played scenarios. A representative from the NIC followed up and attended this week’s training to evaluate and give feedback.

“It’s taken so long,” said Greenwood, a longtime proponent for mental health training for correctional officers and jail improvements. “It’s really a sense of fulfillment.”

The team worked with community partners to provide the training at minimal cost to the sheriff’s office, Jail Chief Ric Bishop said. The actors, for example, are former inmates referred by XChange Recovery Service, a church that helps recovering drug addicts.

“We have been very fortunate that NIC and our community partners have supported our efforts to improve our communication with, management and housing of mentally ill inmates in the Clark County main jail,” Bishop said.

In another scenario, Mike Lewis, a risk management officer with Clark County, faced a man darting back and forth, throwing punches at an enemy only he could see.

“They’re gonna get us!” the actor shouted, ducking and diving to avoid the imaginary blows. “We gotta get out of here! Last time they stabbed him! They’re just going to keep coming! They’re gonna keep coming!”

The actor was playing a man with post-traumatic stress disorder having a flashback of a racially charged prison riot, according to his script.

“Jones, relax for a minute,” Lewis directed him, pretending to be a corrections officer. “Take a deep breath. I want you to calm down for a minute.”

Lewis, who helps develops safety plans for county offices, isn’t likely to face this kind of situation in his day job, but said going through the training will help him train county employees who may face members of the public with mental illnesses.

“The more and more people get this, the more and more aware they become,” he said.

The scenarios are “raw and uncomfortable,” said Huff, a background investigator with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, but will help officers understand how they should handle people suffering from a psychotic hallucination or other mental breakdown.

“The easiest thing to do is to isolate them, which is the worst thing you can do,” Huff said.

The state has cut mental health services by more than $90 million over the past three years, and available beds have declined by 36 percent, according to the Washington State Hospital Association. During the same time, the state’s population has grown by 14 percent, oftentimes placing the burden on jails to provide mental health services.

Upgrades in the jail have already led to a drop-off in suicides, but there is still more work to be done at the Clark County jail. Eventually, the training will be offered twice a year to 24 corrections officers each time, and plans are in the works to add an additional ward for the mentally ill.

“I believe that with better trained staff we’ll get better outcomes,” Furze said.

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