Crisis Intervention Training reduces stigma of mental illness in prisons

MU study shows new training program improves how Missouri corrections officers interact with inmates who are mentally ill.

Contact: Pate McCuien, 573-882-4870,

Before joining the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri, Professor Kelli E. Canada worked as a community clinical social worker in Chicago. There, many of her clients struggled with mental illness and were dealing with long stints in the prison system.

This is an image of Kelli E. Canada

Kelli E. Canada is an Associate Professor and an Associate Director of Research & PhD Program Director in the School of Social Work.

What she discovered was corrections officers play an important role in prisoners’ lives, but often don’t understand how to deal with behaviors associated with mental illness.

With that in mind, Canada partnered with the Missouri Department of Corrections (MODOC) to study how adjusting de-escalation techniques could improve corrections officers’ interactions with inmates with mental illness. The study found that the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training not only increased the officers’ knowledge of mental illness, but also changed their perceptions of people with mental illness.

“Not only are people with serious mental illness overrepresented in prisons, but previous research also suggests that once a person with a mental illness is sentenced, they are likely to stay in prison longer than a counterpart with the same sentence who doesn’t struggle with mental illness,” Canada said. “CIT training is built to help address this issue.”

CIT training was first developed for police officers, who were struggling with their interactions with people with mental illness. MODOC noticed the success the police training program was having and decided to implement it in prisons throughout the state.

“Our study is one of the first studies that takes a look at CIT in prisons,” Canada said. “By training corrections officers in CIT practices and implementing them into the policies of the prison, officers were more prepared to respond to situations involving people who did not respond well to ordinary procedures.”

The efficacy of the training was studied by having officers complete surveys before and after CIT training. The researchers also surveyed officers who were not taking the training as a control group. Canada found that officers who completed the training showed improved attitudes toward inmates with mental illnesses.

Three months after the training, researchers reached out to the CIT-trained officers to evaluate their interactions with inmates. They discovered that the training was most effective when it was implemented as policy within the institution. For example, some institutions require that before forcibly removing an inmate from his or her cell — in the event the inmate refuses to listen to the corrections officer — a CIT-trained officer is sent into the cell to talk with the inmate.

“That was a really helpful strategy because it wasn’t just haphazard; they had a plan in place for when and how to use CIT-trained officers to try to de-escalate situations,” Canada said. “Many times, force isn’t the best answer in these situations. CIT officers are really trying to get to the root cause of whatever the issue may be with the individual.”

“Utilizing Crisis Intervention Teams in Prison to Improve Officer Knowledge, Stigmatizing Attitudes, and Perception of Response Options” was published in Sage Journals. Amy Watson from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and Scott O’Kelley with the Missouri Department of Corrections were collaborators on the paper.

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