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Culture shift: Officers learn new skills for dealing with women in prison

'Sometimes the safest place these women have been is in our custody. It's up to us to accept, support and understand and not to blame them'

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Logan Correctional Center corrections officer Floria Thomas, left, plays an inmate who is forced to turn over a stolen sandwich to officer Legna Velazquez during a recent training session called Creating Regulation and Resilience, or CR-2, at the women's prison. The training sessions are designed to reduce stress, improve understanding on both sides and help inmates learn to take responsibility for their actions. 

LINCOLN — It's well documented that men and women communicate differently, but inside the confines of a women's prison, those differences are magnified by high rates of trauma and mental illness that follow female inmates into state facilities.

Illinois correctional officers and other prison staff are learning new skills to help them communicate more effectively with the 2,400 women who are held in three state prisons.

Weeklong sessions held monthly at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln open with training on trauma. Staff are asked to examine their own lives for signs of trauma, said Carolyn Gurski, chief of the women's division for the Department of Corrections.

"Understanding trauma and what triggers it helps staff see that what we're talking about is not too far removed from their own lives," said Gurski, the first chief of the women's division created in January.

Officers also learn how to de-escalate staff and inmate clashes and help inmates better manage their reactions.

"I think the whole mission is to get people the training and tools they've needed for a long, long time," Gurski told a recent class. 

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Carolyn Gurski, left, chief of the women's division for the Illinois Department of Corrections, and Logan Correctional Center warden Glen Austin, share a laugh as they watch a recent simulation by prison staff. The pair are hopeful the cutting- edge training to prison staff will bring significant improvements to inmate outcomes in the women's division.

Like most states, women make up a smaller percentage of Illinois' overall prison population, but they suffer higher rates of mental illness and past trauma, including physical and sexual abuse.

The complex nature of the female population is borne out by data showing that more than 40 percent of Logan's inmates have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness and almost 100 percent have reported some form of trauma, said Logan Warden Glen Austin. 

Seventy-two percent of Logan's inmates are caregivers to children, making their ongoing involvement in their family's lives an important goal, said Austin.

The impact of #MeToo

Illinois correctional facilities are not immune to the #MeToo movement that has spread across the country, both inside and outside prison walls. Results of 32 complaints filed by Logan inmates in 2016 against staff for sexual misconduct and 13 for harassment showed no substantiated claims, according to IDOC data.

Two investigations involving alleged sexual misconduct by staff are ongoing, according to the state report filed in response to the Prison Rape Elimination Act that sets standards for reporting incidents of rape and harassment in federal, state and local facilities.

Several lawsuits have been filed in federal court by inmates who allege sexual abuse by IDOC staff.

Four Logan officers have been found guilty in state court of sexual misconduct since 2014.

Criminal charges are the appropriate consequence for such behavior, said the warden.

"We don't tolerate it and investigate it thoroughly to ensure full accountability," Austin said of sexual misconduct, adding "it's not reflective of the majority of our staff."

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Correctional counselor Tiona Farrington teaches a class that includes Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) to correctional officers recently at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln. The sessions, while customized for employees at the women's prison, have broad implications for potentially improving inmate outcomes across all of the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Correctional Sgt. Shaun Dawson, president of AFSCME Local 2075, the union representing workers at Logan, said "the negative light shed on us by the past actions of a few individuals has led to an inaccurate portrayal" of the workforce at the state's largest female facility.

The union supports efforts by IDOC administration to train staff "to better address inmate needs while maintaining safety," said Dawson.

"In the last year, under our facility's new administration, the local union has worked collaboratively with the warden to increase safety measures and provide a safe working environment free from the threat of harm. Making the facility safer doesn't only benefit staff, but also inmates who can live free from fear," Dawson said in an emailed statement.

Implementation of the "Creating Regulation and Resilience" training, known as CR-2, was developed by The Women's Justice Initiative (WJI) following the organization's 2016 report on Logan that recommended training for staff  hastily assigned to the prison in 2013 when the state closed the Dwight women's facility and transitioned Logan from a male to female prison. Created by WJI co-founder Alyssa Benedict through CORE Associates and Orbis Partners, the training is the first of its kind for the state agency and is being implemented in several other states to positive reviews. 

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Taking a step back   

During the recent class, IDOC trainer Tiona Farrington counseled 18 officers on the benefits of taking a step back and assessing a potentially volatile situation with an inmate. A small issue can serve as a trigger for inmates who suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome but a calm response from an officer can keep a tense situation from turning chaotic, said Farrington.

"Sometimes the safest place these women have been is in our custody. It's up to us to accept, support and understand and not to blame them," Farrington told the group.

In her four years as a correctional officer, Legna Velazquez has seen a shift toward helping women deal with the issues that brought them to prison. Through CR-2 training, officers "are learning a better approach on how to deal with women who've had a traumatic event in their life. If you deal with those issues on the front end, you may help them avoid coming back to prison," said Valazquez.

In his position as food services manager at the Decatur prison, Mike Williams teaches women job skills that will help them get a job when their time behind bars is over. Such assistance is part of the new emphasis on rehabilitation, said Williams.

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Logan Correctional Center corrections officer Maj. Brian Setzer admits he was brought up with a different set of expectations when he came into IDOC 30 years ago. He said, however, new approaches to deal with inmate issues are going to have a profound impact on outcomes when inmates are released from the facility.

"We're no longer just trying to make sure they don't get out the door. It's absolutely our job to make people better or else we'd just be jailers," said Williams, a 20-year veteran of the IDOC.  

During a visit to the class by Austin and Gurski, Maj. Brian Setzer admitted that the new approach as to how officers interact with inmates represents a stark departure from what he's learned over his three decades with the state.

"I was brought up old school, where it was 'yes, no and do what you're told,'" said Setzer, adding he's ready to implement what he's learned in classes.

The use of good communication skills does not preclude the use of discipline when called for, including the use of force, the warden told the class. Officers who are members of the state's tactical team that deals with resistant and violent inmates also have received the training. 

The state hopes to complete training of Logan's 700 union and contractual employees by next summer.

Contact Edith Brady-Lunny at (309) 820-3276. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_blunny

McLean County Courts Reporter

McLean County courts reporter for The Pantagraph.