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jim schmidt
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Jim Schmidt has been a corrections officer at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville for over 15 years. He specializes in getting potentially violent inmates out of their cells and into group therapy sessions with activity therapist Eric Bailey. In this interview, he discusses the difficulty of remaining empathetic and calm when mentally ill prisoners act out. "Sometimes you're dealing with people here that don't act human, and it just burns you. It just goes through your system. ... [But] you can't even think about that when you walk up and down that range, …" he says. "No matter who you are, if you're a corrections officer, you're also a social worker, because when you go up on the range and these inmates have a problem, you're not going to just walk on by, because you want to prevent a problem." This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 21, 2004.

Even though they are mentally ill, they still know the difference between right and wrong. But some of them, the problem there is that some of them don't catch it till they've already done it.

We filmed group therapy, and you were there. Tell me your role in that scene.

Well, my thing is to maintain order. My top thing is security. Once I've got them in the pod, my main thing from that point on is to make sure that they just don't get out of order, just abide by the rules, regulations. And for the most part, they do that. ...

I try to stay quiet. I try to stay out of the way. I listen to what the inmates have to say, and I learn a lot from that myself. When [activity therapist] Eric [Bailey]'s down there teaching the group, I learn a lot from him. But my main thing, I just try to stay out of the way, observe, listen, learn.

You said you learn a lot from what the inmates say. What do you mean?

Well, I learn a lot from their perspective, where they came from. First and foremost, they're in here for a crime they had committed. But I look at it also as I want to see what happened on their side of it, because sometimes your upbringing has a lot to do with it, and they come out with some good, interesting stories. It's just learning how they dealt with stuff before they came in here. Some of it's fascinating. ...

Is it a fine line to maintain between empathetic and professional and tough?

Well, I try to talk to them as you should, as a human being, just as somebody would talk to me. I'd want them to treat me the same way. And you've got to be professional at this job. You can't look at this guy [and say], "Well, this guy committed a crime; he's no good; he's a nuisance," because this guy still has to come back out sometime. He has to go back out on the street.

If the inmate I know has been troubled in the past with family problems, stuff like that, I try my best to talk to him, settle him down. He might have been disrespectful or so on to me, or whatever. I try to work it out with him because I know what he's going through. I know he's going through a bad deal right now. I've got to kind of put my job off a little bit as far as "Hey, I'm going to put a ticket on you for disrespect," because you can't really do that every time. You've got to understand at that time where this inmate's coming from. ...

I try not to show any of them any favoritism at all, number one. But [sometimes] you're a little bit more lenient; sometimes you're not. It just depends on how you think that inmate's doing that day.

What makes you more lenient, if that's your decision?

Well, if he's out of character. If an inmate is normally quiet, you don't hear him yelling out on the range, ... and you go up there on the range and he's pacing, if he's wringing his hands, if he's talking to himself, you keep that in the back of your mind. And then when it comes time for group activity, if he's on that group list to go out, you may want to reconsider. You may want to go up and talk to him and see if he's all right before you take him out to group. ...

And a lot of times, the medication has a lot to do with that, if the inmate's not taking his medication, which happens a lot. These guys think that, "Well, I'm feeling better now, and that means I ain't going to take my medication." Well, you're feeling better because you are taking your medication. And when they're not -- and you can pretty much tell when they're not taking their medication -- is when they start acting out of character, doing stuff that they don't normally do. You know that they're going to quit taking their medication, and that's what's going to happen. You look for it.

Are the corrections officers seeing it long before other staff, mental health?

You do. The officers that work in the blocks see these inmates every day. They know their habits; they know their schedule. They know practically what time they're going to wake up in the morning, when they're going to lay down in the afternoon, if they eat three meals a day, if they only eat two. ... They are predictable in that sense. They are unpredictable when they're not on their medication.

What is it like when they're not on their meds?

Well, you've got to be cautious. If a guy is not taking his medication, number one, you don't want to bring him out for a group session, because not only is he a danger to other inmates, he's a danger to you [and a] danger to himself, if he's known to cut himself. So the precautions you take are, number one, you let the doctor know; you let the nurses know. You talk to the other officers that are working, let them know, "Hey, this inmate's not acting the way he should be; he's out of character right now." And you let the other staff members, the medical people, check him out.

Do they value your opinion? What is the relationship between corrections and mental health?

... We communicate totally. If I see an inmate out of line, just like [the doctor] would inform me, I do the same thing with him. If I see an inmate and I know that he's not doing what he should be doing, if he's not acting the way he should be acting, I let [prison psychiatrist] Dr. [Gary] Beven know; I let the nurses know. And we work together. We both have to work with these inmates, and if we want to make everything click, for the safety of everybody, you've got to communicate with each other. ...

And you've definitely got to count on each other. You can't count on yourself. Not one person runs mental health. It's not all corrections. Corrections takes care of the security part of it, and then you've got your staff that takes care of their mental health and their medical needs. But it takes everybody. It takes everybody: the unit manager, the case managers, the secretaries. In this unit, everybody's got to work together.

What does it take to make corrections and mental health work?

I think a lot of it has to do with training. There's new medications out there; there's new diagnoses. And the training is [a big] thing. ...

When we have our annual training, everybody goes together. You have maintenance people in training with us, because that maintenance guy may be in the block at that time. He may be down the pipe chase fixing something, or he may be on the range replacing a light, and he's got to know, "Hey, I'm in the mental health block; I've got to watch some of these guys." Some of the stuff the inmates might say might be off the wall. It might throw him off. ...

Like what?

Oh, we've had inmates [who would] just bang their heads on the wall, and other guys, they would scream, shout, yell or kick the doors, kick the bars. That would go on forever. Throwing stuff out on the range -- stuff like that, if you're there a while, you get used to it. You definitely get used to it. But somebody new that would come in here and experience something like that, they'd probably turn right back around and leave. ...

How do you get used to it? What have you seen?

... As far as throwing even feces, human waste, on the range, that's something that happens regularly. And a lot of times it just isn't thrown on the range; it's thrown at a staff member, an officer. And that's the inmate's way of getting your attention, and it pretty much works. When that happens on that level, it gets your attention real fast. Other things, like I said, the banging their heads on the wall, or trying to hurt themselves, that happens.

Have you seen cutting?

The cutting is a regular thing. We have a lot of cutters in J4, and it happens a lot as well. And these guys that do that, they do it to relieve the pressure, apparently, that is inside them. This is what I've learned. I've never been in that position. I can't imagine anybody cutting on themselves. I couldn't do it. [But] what I've learned through working with mental health is that that's a release valve, and to some of them, it feels good. And by looking at their arms, some of them must like it a lot, because their arms are marked up, and they're going to be scarred forever. And I'm not in a position to say: "Are you crazy? Why are you doing that?" ... You've got to tell yourself: "Well, Jim, he's not right. He is not right. Get him help." So I try to help. Well, actually, there's no trying about it; they do get help. I make sure they get help. If he's cutting, he's definitely going to get some help right then, right there.

What is "bombing"?

The slang term, which is "getting bombed out," is when the inmate throws feces [or] urine out on the range, out on the staff member. A lot of the time, 99 percent of the time, it is an officer getting the brunt of it. And it is an assault. ...

I have been spit on, which is also an assault. And that's just as bad, because of the bodily fluids. And it's just something that a lot of officers have to go through. The proper disciplinary actions are taken. The inmate is taken and then placed in J2. But the [real] penalty a lot of times is the way you feel, because you're the one that got bombed out, you're the one that got spit on, and you definitely feel that the penalty that the inmate received was not severe enough.

You feel it should be longer?

The inmate, if he spits on you, he does have a spit sock put on him for a duration of time, and he's placed in isolation for a long while. But you just feel like forever's not enough. That's what goes through your head. I'd rather an inmate come up and just haul off and sucker-punch me and knock me straight down, knock every tooth I've got out, than to have him spit on me or to have urine or anything like that, because there's no difference. It's bodily fluids, and that's just nasty.

Do they have medical illnesses, so the fluids are also dangerous?

Oh, yeah, a lot of them. A lot of them have AIDS. We're not allowed to know who's got AIDS. We're not allowed to know who's got hepatitis, who's got TB [tuberculosis]. We're not allowed to know that because it's an invasion of the inmate's privacy rights.

We, I believe, need to know. I think all staff members need to know. I'm not saying we need to go out and broadcast to everybody, "Hey, this guy's got this, this guy's got that," but we need to know who's got this, who's got that. I wear gloves, no matter who I'm touching out there. I don't care if I'm walking in the block to pick up a piece of paper or a pen; I'm going to wear gloves. But there should be a list in every block, in my opinion, telling the officers, the staff members and also the inmates that are in there, because the inmates need to know if they've got somebody in the cell next to them that's got hepatitis or TB, because TB, you can get that airborne so easily. ...

And what if you got a face full of spit?

You'd be tested. The staff here, they do care about you, but their hands are tied. You [could] get sued [over privacy rights].

How does an officer stay calm when somebody's throwing feces in his face?

It's hard. You've got to hope that you've got your partner with you. And trust me, you're going to thank your partner for coming in and getting you off that range. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. No normal person is going to go down there, get thrown on and say, "Thank you, can I have another?" Nobody's going to do that. And they don't train you to do that. But you've got to have a good partner down there, and he will settle you down. He will pull you off the range. And it is best, through my experience being here anyway, to have somebody else come in and secure the inmate and escort him to J2, wherever he needs to go. And that happens. The supervisors, they make sure of that. If you are assaulted by an inmate, you're not the one to take him to J2, because that makes it a difficult situation for you.

However trained you are, you're still human.

You are definitely human, yeah. Sometimes you're dealing with people here that don't act human, and it just burns you. It just goes through your system. ...

[But] you can't even think about that when you walk up and down that range, worrying, I wonder if I made somebody mad, that they're going to throw something on me or spit on me, or whatever the case may be. It's just something that you just have to look past, and you just can't dwell on it. ...

If the guy's mentally ill and you know it, whether it's an assault or bombing, how do you separate that in the moment?

It's kind of hard to separate. Even though he does have mental illness, you might be able to think of it later on and say, "That guy normally wouldn't have done that." It's easy to sit back later on and say that to yourself, but at the time that it happens, that's not the first thing that comes to my mind. You can only separate it -- for myself, from my perspective -- you can only separate it after you've had time to think about it. But at the spur of the moment, he's like any other inmate. …

And granted, later on when I sit back and think about him and I'm writing my report, I'm still angered over it; there's no doubt. You're still angered over it for days, months. But you sit back and you look at it and you say, "He doesn't do that" -- not that he's not capable. He's certainly capable, but he's not known for doing that.

Beyond those incidents, are officers in danger every day on the range?

Definitely. As soon as you come in here, soon as you clock in. This is a very demanding job, a very risky job. You could walk in here, and you don't know if you're going to walk out. Nobody ever thought that the riot back in '93 would happen. Nobody ever thought that was possible. But the warning signs were there. It could happen any time. You walk on the range, some of these guys in here, they have nothing to lose. Some of them are doing life; they're never getting out. They want to try to make the situation as good as they can. If they're going to live here, they want the situation to be as good as it can get for them.

I've found myself that as long as you give these guys what they've got coming -- nothing more, nothing less -- you're not generally going to have a problem with a lot of these inmates, except maybe some of the mentally ill ones when you know that there's medication [and they're] not taking it. Then you may have to use common sense on that. But as long as you're giving these inmates what they've got coming -- they're getting their shower, they're getting their recreation, they're getting their three meals -- because I tell you what, these guys count, and if they get two slices of bread instead of three, they're going to get mad. And it may not make you mad on the street. Down here it matters. It matters in every prison, because that's what they've got coming. They want to make sure they've got that coming.

And if you're doing your job, you're going to make sure that happens. Not that you're trying to pacify them -- you're doing what you're supposed to do. And by doing that, that's going to make it easier, not only just on you, but the officer who comes in to relieve you and that has to walk that range later on.

If you do something on purpose, something stupid, to make these guys irritated, you're going to bring it down on the next officer that comes in to relieve you, or the secretary or the case manager that goes up on that range. This inmate's already irritated. If you're doing it, say, to get your jollies out of it, you're just making it harder on everybody else.

How do the other officers view what you do on the mental health unit?

... Some of them consider it social working. My number one goal is security. But no matter who you are, if you're a corrections officer, you're also a social worker, because when you go up on the range and these inmates have a problem, you're not going to just walk on by, because you want to prevent a problem. So when you get up there and talk to them, you are social working. You're talking to them; you're talking them down, and you're trying to prevent a problem.

... Some of the officers here would love to have my job, because it's interesting. Some of them are hard-core; some are not.

And where are you on that [spectrum], do you think?

You've got to be right in the middle. You can't be hard-core all the time. And you can't come in here thinking, I'm tough, and this is my block; I'm going to run it the way I want to run it. Everybody runs that block, OK? ...

Like I said, [the inmates] have nothing to lose. A lot of them don't. And you're not impressing them. You're not impressing them one bit. The inmates respect you more if you give them what they've got coming. You don't have to be 6 feet 8 inches, 275 pounds, bulging muscles out to here, thinking, I'm tough and these guys are going to be scared of me. No, they're not. They're not scared of you. They are not scared of you one bit. They might act it sometimes, but they're not.

You give them what they've got coming, you'll get the respect. And that's not babying them. That's just doing your job. ...

What do you try to teach mental health team members about what you do and why it is important?

Sometimes, when a mentally ill inmate does something, breaks a rule, just because this inmate is mentally ill, he's more or less off the hook. A lot of times [he] will get bailed out. Sometimes an officer -- and me included -- I don't agree with that all the time, because you're setting an example that you're favoring this guy. You're letting this guy off the hook easy because he's a mentally ill inmate, but this other guy here, he got busted big time for it. And if you're an officer and you're writing a ticket on this, it's hard to understand why this inmate was not punished the same as the other one.

What reason does the mental health staff give you?

Well, a mentally ill inmate has got to have a representative with them when they go to court in RIB [Rules Infraction Board]. And the reason for that is some of them cannot think for themselves. And that's what the representative from mental health is in there for. So that representative who's in there may not have been there at the time that that offense occurred. And so he or she is straight neutral, not taking any sides. And they look at the diagnosis. They know what this inmate is in for, they know what his problem is, and so they kind of weigh the severity of the punishment on what kind of inmate he is. If he's a severely brain-damaged inmate, he may not get 15 days in the hole for a fight. He may go back to his block. ... Some of it I agree with; some of it I don't.

So there's resentment that mental illness is an excuse? Where does the friction come in terms of the mental health staff?

… There's always going to be resentment, friction between some officers, OK? And like I said, I felt it myself when I first came here, before I got into this area, because, you know, you write a ticket on somebody and you want something done, and boom, they come in. Then I say, "Well, this bleeding heart came in there and bailed him out." [The] inmate comes back in the block, he's laughing. He's laughing, and it burns you up, ... because if you write a ticket on somebody and they throw it out and the inmate comes back and he's laughing at you, what gives you any incentive to want to do your job? ...

I'm a firm believer that they still need the discipline, because they still know between right and wrong. Even though they are mentally ill, they still know the difference between right and wrong. But some of them, the problem there is that some of them don't catch it till they've already done it. They don't catch it. They don't know what they've done until they've already done it, and then they realize what they did was wrong. ...

A lot of these guys have trouble following rules. Why are they getting so many tickets?

They're getting tickets because, naturally, they're breaking a rule violation. These guys, a lot of these guys here, I see a bunch of them recycle. And I call it recycling because they go out from here, from J4, they go to K5, the RTU [residential treatment] unit. ... It is a revolving door. And the reason why is because once you get out of the RTU, you are going to be treated the same as every other inmate in the population area. ...

[And] a mentally ill inmate that may be out in the population, if he gets that same kind of ticket, he may just totally go off, because it means more to him. It means more to him, and where the normal, so-called normal inmate says, "I did wrong; I'm going to fix up my punishment," this guy here, the mentally ill one, doesn't see it that way. [He sees it as], "They're picking on me because I'm mentally ill," or, "They just don't like me," or the paranoia comes in.

And they sometimes take it that step further, and you may have to use force on them. A lot of the mentally ill inmates that are in here, you have to use more force on them. It just seems that way -- to me it does, anyway -- because once they get out, they're out of control, and then they need to be secured. ... They don't know their own strength. They just get so burning up and they're so out of control, you can't control them. It may be a 130-pound inmate that's only 5 feet 3 inches [tall]. You may have more trouble out of him, trying to get him settled down, than you would some of the bigger guys.

Tell us about cell extractions.

You try to use every option you can. You don't want to use force. That's a very, very last resort. Anyway, you may have an inmate that is, say, in his cell, and he's cutting on himself, OK? And you give him several direct orders, and this guy just keeps on cutting. And he's looking at you, smiling at you. Blood is going everywhere. In a case like that, you have to go in. You have to go in. You have to put the pressure there to keep him from dying, losing his life. You need to get him to the infirmary. You need to get him some medical help.

Other [problems] wouldn't be as severe. If he's bouncing around in his cell, banging his head around, you have to go in, got to get the team together. If he's violated a rule, and he says, "Hell no, I ain't coming out; I'm not going to the hole; you're not taking me to the hole," they'll get the team ready, and they are going to go in, and they're going to extract. And he needs to be extracted.

... And a lot of the time, if he's not coming out, he's going to resist. So when [the extraction team] goes in, naturally the inmate's going to charge. That's what the shield is for. They get the inmate down, and each team member takes his position, and they get the inmate restrained. ...

You go in there; you don't know what he's capable of. You can get all the protective gear in the world, and they've got the helmets; they've got all that stuff. But I've seen guys go in there to get inmates and just come out soaking wet from perspiration. You're talking four or five guys on one, but this guy here is totally out of control. It's not that easy. And I'll tell you, I wouldn't want to do their job. ...

[Tell me about malingerers.]

… They do the twitch, or they act like they're hearing voices, and they put on a show, because these other guys can watch and see these inmates that are really sick. They watch them. They know what they do, and they know what they say. So they follow that same suit. They think, well, maybe the doctor will see me doing that, and he's going to diagnose me the same way, and I'm going to be down there, and I'm going to be living high off the hog. And that's their way of playing the game. They're not where they should be. They should be in a regular-population block, down with the other guys that are at the same level mentally as they are. ...

Many mentally ill cycle in and out of the criminal justice system. What have you seen with your inmates from K5 and J4?

I've seen a couple of them that have returned. But here, for the most part, a lot of them make it out, and so far they haven't returned. A lot of them that you would think that would have been right back, I'm still waiting for them to walk through that door, but they haven't. Statistically there are a lot of inmates that come back into the prison system. But as far as the mental health side of it, I've only seen, myself, a couple of them.

Could you have predicted it?

A lot of times you probably think that you could, but of course you want to prove yourself wrong. You could tell by looking at some of them [that] this is all they will want to know, is prison life. You know, they're institutionalized; they don't have a home to go to. They go out there, and they're right back on the street; instead of in a better place, they're going right back into a place that got them here in the first place. The guys that are here -- and I'm not just talking the mentally ill; I'm talking about all inmates -- if they've got family, they've got a good chance of not coming back.

And if they don't?

If they don't have family, if they have nothing but the street to go back to, my prediction, 99 percent of them will come back.

Big picture: What should the public understand? What is the missing piece?

Well, the big thing is getting the mentally retarded inmates out and into a facility that can better treat them, OK? That is my big thing, because you cannot have them in here with the other inmates. They don't have a chance. They are not going to be able to make it. They need to get the proper help. And with them being on the same range with some of these other guys, it's only going to hurt them more than help them.

And the mentally ill in general? Any lessons you've learned inside here?

Well, the way I see it, these guys here, either you want help or you don't want help. And before they come in here, before they come into prison, they should have the opportunity to get help. The help should be there. If it's not there, then they're going to end up in a place like this. So they need the mental health facilities. They need to have them out there, because these inmates, if they have no other recourse, it's hard to handle a problem by yourself.

I'm sure the majority of them don't want to come in here. Why would you want to come in here? You don't want to spend your life in here. So you want to try to get help. And I believe they would. And I think that if they do come in here, then once they get out, there should be a facility or hospital or clinic, somewhere they can go to get help when they get out, because if you just shut the door [behind] them, [and] they walk out and you say, "OK, you're on your own now," that's not going to work, because your treatment doesn't stop as soon as you walk out of here. You've got to go on.

It's just like your medication. If you stop taking your medication -- "Well, I'm out of prison now; I don't have to take my medication" -- I guarantee you, you're going to end up right back in here, because they're going to think, well, I took it because I was mandated to take it, or I took it just to make myself look good and to make it look good in front of the parole board, [and] now I'm going to get out; now I don't have to take it anymore. Well, they need, once they get out, to continue taking their medication, continue getting their treatment.

Long after they leave these gates?

Long [after]. As long as it takes, because mental illness just doesn't away on its own. And a lot of the cases don't go away at all. It's there, just like diabetes or just like heart disease. If it's medication that keeps you alive for that, you need to take your medication for your mental illness. ...

What do you know now that you didn't know before you were working here?

... From working here the 15 years I've been here, I've learned that you can't just put a guy in here, lock him up, tell him to do 10 to 20 years, and then soon as that time's up, send him back out on the street. It's not going to work.

While they're in here, they've got to have programs. And there's still not enough programs. And I'm not talking just the mental illness part of it, the RTU units or the J4 unit. I'm talking about throughout the prison and the prison system. They've got to have schooling.

There's just so much I've learned, just from working here. When I went to school, everybody went to school. I never a met a person that didn't go to school. I was fortunate enough to live in an area where I didn't have that. So it was a complete[ly new] experience for me to come in here, and this guy is sitting there talking to the doctor, and he tells me he's only got a fifth- or sixth-grade education. And sometimes that person that's only got that fifth- or sixth-grade education is using these big words. You're thinking, how does he learn that? Well, he's learned a lot of it from being in prison, OK? But they need more of it. They need more education in here to get these guys prepared for when they go out on the street.

Do you have to have hope? Does this program give people something to work towards?

When I get up and come into work, first thing when I get up in the morning, you're going into work inside of a prison, and then you're going to think, well, there ain't nothing to look forward to. But my job, personally, I look forward to coming in. I get to work with a lot of these guys, staff members and inmates, and hopefully at the end of the day, I'm hoping that I made an impression and helped somebody out. ....

The Dunn [consent] decree evolves out of the riots. So you've lost an officer, and you're now starting to talk about mental health treatment for inmates. What was that like inside?

Bobby [Vallandingham] getting killed -- he was a good officer, and that weighed hard on everybody. It's hard to accept for any officer to get killed, let alone why him, one of the fairest guys there was? And it angered a lot of people, and it still does. It makes me mad. And the guys that are most responsible are on death row right now. But not all these inmates were part of that, especially right now, down here. Guys that were involved in that riot, inmates we had at that time, very few are down here right now.

But at the time, after the riot ended, it was hard to think, these guys need help, blah blah blah blah blah; it was hard to accept that. There was a lot of anger. A lot of people just up and quit. And I came close myself to quitting, because you felt you were just so mad, because you felt like things weren't handled the way they should have been. Bobby would be alive right now if we would have done what I feel is the right thing, but I'm not going to get into that.

But as far as dealing with the inmates afterwards -- and everybody I'm sure feels the same way -- there was no compassion for them, that's for sure. That's something that would have never been found at that time, during that period, because everybody, including myself, blamed every inmate for that reason. So as far as saying, "Well, these guys need mental help," I looked at it at that time as just another cop-out for them. ...

 

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posted may 10, 2005

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