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A Day in the Life – Special Offender Unit

February 26, 2020

By Rachel Noll

DOC Communications

exterior view of prison facility at monroe correctional complex

Exterior Entrance of the Special Offender Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex (Susan Biller, Monroe Correctional Complex)

The Special Offender Unit (SOU) at Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) is arguably one of the most unique state correctional facilities run by Washington Department of Corrections. The work performed here is challenging and often goes unrecognized.

The men incarcerated at SOU have all been assessed to have a serious mental illness. Often, they do not receive treatment until incarceration. Once their diagnosis is confirmed, frequently during processing at the state’s receiving center, Washington Corrections Center, they then begin to serve their sentence at the SOU. This means that Maximum custody, Close custody, Medium custody, and Minimum custody all exist in this one facility.

While they serve their sentence, a team of psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors and nursing staff work to give them the medications, therapy and programming needed. At the same time, correctional officers work with compassion and integrity, understanding they work with a population that may need a specialized approach.

Intent on shining a light on the important work that the staff at SOU performs, I chose this as my next job shadow assignment. SOU has a large number of staff, and their job titles vary. In order to get as clear of a picture as I could, with only one shift to do so, I spent some time in several different areas.

Maximum Security and Mental Health Treatment

Individuals housed in SOU’s maximum custody are those who have engaged in disruptive and/or dangerous behavior during their current incarceration and have a mental illness that needs to be treated.

Typically, maximum-security custody levels involve one individual to a cell. Meals are served in the cell; one hour per day is spent in the yard. These restrictions can be difficult for anyone, but especially those who also have a mental illness.

Here at SOU, maximum security provides additional opportunities that may not line up with what one expects to hear about maximum security. Incarcerated individuals begin their treatment with opportunities to begin learning prosocial behavior including programming outside of their cell and some shared mealtimes. These scheduled mealtimes occur outside of the cell, where individuals are able to have a meal together. Initially, they are restrained, but as they progress through treatment steps, they have opportunities to spend additional time together, unrestrained.

I discovered while speaking with Psychology Associate Jesse Calliham, mental health treatment and safety are the priorities. The men incarcerated at SOU will more than likely eventually release back to the community so the staff in all areas focus on working with them on coping skills, taking their medication regularly and being able to socialize with others.

In maximum security at SOU, there is an officer in the control booth, two officers on the unit and often a sergeant and correctional mental health unit supervisor present. Then, there are mental health staff and health care staff who are present throughout the day, with nursing staff available 24/7.

The mental health team at SOU works hard to give the least restrictive options possible to the individuals housed in maximum security. They have developed a five-step program that helps the men in maximum security learn to develop coping skills and socialize with others, among other benefits.

Incarcerated individuals progress through the steps on an individual basis, depending on behaviors, compliance with expectations and evaluations with a multidisciplinary team. As they progress through the steps, expectations become higher.

  • Step one – Lasting approximately two weeks - Initial phase and first assignment for all incarcerated individuals in this program. In this step, incarcerated individuals learn expectations and the process for gradual re-integration into general population.
  • Step two – Lasting approximately one month - Initial expectations increase, incarcerated individuals have five opportunities a week to participate in congregate activities (CA) with their peers and group therapy. At this phase, they are expected to attend at least two CAs per week.
  • Step three – Lasting approximately two months – Expectations increase further, including increasing to an expected three CAs per week.
  • Step four – Lasting approximately one month – Incarcerated individuals spend time around their peers while unrestrained, expectation increases to four CAs per week. At this step, incarcerated individuals also have the opportunity to apply for unit jobs.
  • Step five – Lasting approximately one month – Incarcerated individuals continue spending time around their peers unrestrained, expectation increases to 5 CAs per week and after successful completion of step five, incarcerated individuals will transfer to less restrictive housing.

Jesse explained that they were currently working on getting some of the incarcerated from step three to step four. These individuals, if approved to move forward, will have the opportunity to move to a less restrictive tier or setting, still in maximum security, where they share meal times with the others on their unit, unrestrained and come out of their cell several times a week to watch television together, socialize or play games.

He then went to meet with those on his case list to check in and see what concerns they had, and review potential questions and talking points pertaining to the upcoming interview with the treatment team and administration. This part in the process gives individuals the opportunity to advocate for themselves, when perhaps they would not have been able to do that previously. Their counselor works with them beforehand to talk about progress they have made, coping mechanisms they have now to manage their mental health symptoms and pro-socially communicate with others and the potential impact of their current psychotropic medication.

The team of mental health professionals then visited each of these individuals, escorted and secured by correctional officers to separate rooms, where they discussed past issues, what coping skills these individuals now had and why the incarcerated individual believed they were ready to graduate to step 4.

One individual expressed that he had a lot of anxiety about the change, and wanted to have time to adjust. If he was able to graduate to Step 4, he asked if he could remain in his current housing assignment for a little while longer to adapt to the change.

Sometimes those with mental health issues struggle with change. Routine is very important and the idea of getting outside of that routine can be very overwhelming. The team agreed to consider this individual’s concerns and allow some flexibility to give him time to adjust, with the mutual understanding that soon he would need to make a full transition to the new living unit.

The team’s professionalism and compassion were incredible to witness. Understanding that this is just one small snapshot of the effort they put in on a regular basis, it is impressive to see how committed they are to ensuring that these men are able to serve their sentence safely, humanely and while receiving the mental health care that they need. Their approach is not linear, allowing adjustments for individual needs and understanding that no one person experiences mental illness the same way.

Close Custody – Movement

I spent the next part of the day with Officer Lemos, observing lunchtime and movement. If you have ever observed a movement at any facility you will know, it is typically a large amount of bodies coming from all directions. At SOU, they keep their meal times limited, meaning less individuals arrive at one time and close custody moves unrestrained – not something you see every day.

Officer Lemos is responsible for scanning each of the individuals in before they sit down, and then he observes – ensuring that the mealtime runs smoothly and addressing any issues quickly and calmly. I immediately noticed that he was not only kind and professional with his colleagues, but also with the incarcerated individuals coming for mealtime.

He has worked in this unit for 20 years, and appears to have found the balance between respect and rapport while maintaining the safety and security of the facility. It was very apparent that the population here is very different than you will see elsewhere. Those who are mentally ill often have behaviors and mannerisms that others can find confusing or may have difficulty relating too.

One incarcerated individual, who happens to be both deaf and nonverbal, has found a way to communicate with Officer Lemos.

“I don’t know sign language, but somehow we’ve figured out how to talk to each other,” Officer Lemos said.

As we walked back out of the dining area to observe movement, Officer Lemos brought us to the center of the green space they use for movement. It is rather large, and the buildings form sort of a circle around it. The green space is well groomed and there are several garden areas, ready for planting.

Officer Lemos, it turns out, is also responsible for managing the grounds crew in this area. It’s not a job duty you would typically find an officer performing, but in this case, there was a program need and Officer Lemos stepped in.

The SOU is where Officer Lemos chooses to work. He bid into this position and he cares about the work he does. It was easy to see what a difference his compassion made to those with whom he interacted. In a setting that can be often negative and harsh, he has remained positive and optimistic.

Mental Health on a Living Unit

I spent the last part of the day with Psychologist Marlinda Pruden. She had scheduled a group meeting with a few individuals who currently were living in one-person cells in a medium/long-term minimum-security living unit. The meeting featured an incarcerated guest speaker from a different living unit discussing the benefits of moving in to a cell with two people instead of one.

“Having someone to talk to and to communicate with instead of always being alone has been really nice,” he said.

“A lot of these guys don’t have the family support to release to and they end up having to live in a facility where they share a room,” Pruden said. “When they release we want them to have the skills necessary to be able to share their space.”

SOU focuses on treating the mental illness, providing social skills and coping mechanisms and preparing individuals for release. When incarcerated individuals arrive at SOU, the goal is to prepare them for release, address their mental health needs and provide them with the opportunity to continue receiving treatment upon release.

“Often, people don’t receive treatment until they become incarcerated,” Pruden said. “While they are here, they receive the proper medications and treatment, and before they leave, their psychiatric social worker ensures they leave with an appointment for mental health services.”

SOU also helps individuals learn how to budget, prepare paperwork and navigate bus maps. These experiences can be stressful for anyone incarcerated for a period of time, but those with mental health issues might have additional struggles navigating.

As they phase through the system, these incarcerated individuals encounter countless staff members—uniformed officers, mental health professionals, health care and program specialists.

As they do so, they are learning how to socialize, how to advocate for themselves, how to handle their anger and make better choices. They receive humane and compassionate treatment from staff who understand the importance of their work.

The staff will tell you that it is not an easy job. However, it is a job they value and continue to choose to do -- each day, living up to the department’s mission to positively change lives.