Jailhouse SWAT quells unruly behavior
Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 11:46 p.m.
West Palm Beach
Sheriff's Corrections Cpl. Napolean Nealy gave the combative inmate one last chance: Agree to an injection of medication or else.
"Come and talk to me like a man," Nealy yelled into the messy jail cell of the middle-aged man under arrest for hitting a worker at a mental health clinic. "Are you refusing?"
Hearing no response, five tall, muscular and helmeted deputies picked up their riot shields and pushed into the cell. They forced the screaming and resisting man to the floor, and held him down until an orderly gave him a shot of sedative.
In the unpredictable and sometimes dangerous world of Palm Beach County Jail's mental health ward, the six-member Corrections Emergency Response Team — a sort of a jail SWAT team — often is called to quell the most serious threats.
But they also are used in routine procedures where force is necessary, especially with the steadily growing population of mentally ill inmates whose erratic behavior can turn violent at any moment and unravel the jail's seemingly controlled environment.
There are about 50 mentally ill inmates in the jail every day awaiting trial and serving sentences. Many end up behind bars because their untreated illnesses get them in trouble with police and they have few other places to go for treatment, officials said.
The jail offers them medication, counseling and screening, but many continue to cycle in and out, often without resolution to their troubles. As many as half of the mentally ill inmates on many days are deemed insane or unfit to stand trail, criminal justice officials said.
Heath care in jail
"We are the de-facto mental health institution," Capt. Mark Chamberlain said. "It's better than not having a service at all. Once they are here, at least something positive can come from it."
Many mentally ill inmates have diseases and come from squalor. They are known to punch, spit and throw feces at deputies and nurses.
Such assaults, deputies said, can inflict lasting damage to their bodies as well as to their psyche.
So when trouble arises, the response team — whose members get extra training and higher salaries — races there through the network of long hallways, steel bars and Plexiglas windows.
The presence of a SWAT-like team to deal with the mentally ill patients at the jail is absolutely necessary, said Bob Anis, director of mental health services at Columbia Hospital in West Palm Beach.
There are several types of training that corrections officers who deal with the mentally ill should receive, Anis said. At a minimum, they should learn the pathology of the major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, to understand what a person is going through and the symptoms they may exhibit, Anis said.
Members of the response team also should be well versed in de-escalation techniques, Anis said. Those techniques are required training for staff members at inpatient psychiatric hospitals.
"A lot of times with these patients, empathy, understanding and taking time can de-escalate a situation," he said. "If you need to do a physical intervention, we teach how to do a safe physical intervention that is designed to prevent injury of the individual as well as injury to the people doing the intervention."
Assignment to the unit isn't something all corrections officers want or would be right for.
"Not everyone is cut out for this," Deputy David Feliciano said.
On any given week, the team breaks up fights among rival gang members and restrains other delinquents. But most often, they are pulled in to hold down mentally ill inmates for medication and hustle them to court, clinic, prison and even showers.
With deranged voices screaming and pounding of cellblock doors as a constant backdrop, the deputies depend on each other to survive in the often strange and predatory world.
"There's a lot of bad guys in here and our safety depends on each other and our training," said Sgt. Eliecer Ramos, the unit's commander.
These men aren't as overly concerned as criminal justice officials are about the mentally ill tying up cells that might otherwise be reserved for more serious offenders.
Their chief issue is protecting the staff and inmates.
Ready to move
Based at the main jail at Sheriff's Office headquarters west of West Palm Beach, they dash out to troubles at the county's other jails near Belle Glade and next to the South Florida Fairgrounds. They are on call 24 hours a day, their cars loaded with shotguns, helmets and shields. They go outside the jail occasionally to help other deputies on gang roundups, drug stings and other dangerous assignments.
Despite the risks, many in the unit waited their whole careers to join. At least 19 deputies are on a waiting list for positions to open on the team.
Many deputies signed up for the physical challenges but also for altruistic reasons.
"Maybe I can save a guy by breaking up a fight," said Deputy James Washington, a former military police officer and communications specialist.
On a recent morning, a mentally ill inmate punched a deputy trying to talk to him. Moments later, a call came into the response unit's crammed office seeking help in medicating the man. The group suited up in stab-resistant vests and knee and elbow pads, donned helmets, strapped on stun guns, grabbed shields and rushed out.
The hulking deputies lined up outside the inmate's cell. Once the command was given, they dashed in. The inmate was sedated in less than a minute. No one was injured.
"Everything went all right," said Ramos, leading the men out of the cell where the air smelled stale and food covered the floor. "It was all good today."
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