COLUMBIA - A small group of South Carolina correctional officers is getting specialized training on dealing with mentally ill inmates, an effort by the agency to respond to criticisms lodged in a lawsuit against the prisons department.

The weeklong training started Monday and involves 24 volunteer correctional officers doing a combination of classroom training, role play with actors imitating inmates and visits to mental health facilities, Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told The Associated Press. Graduates get a special patch for their uniforms, Stirling said, thereby making them easily recognizable if a situation gets out of hand.

"It's a program to teach volunteers how to interact with mental health inmates who may be escalating their behavior, and how to calm them down so we don't have to use force, and we don't have to put them in lockup," Stirling said. "That officer will be able to turn to one of these officers and say, I'm having a problem with this inmate, can you please come and help?"

An alleged over-reliance on the use of force is something the department is working to correct after the conclusion of a yearslong lawsuit. Earlier this year, a judge sided with a group of inmates and a nonprofit who sued the agency in 2005 over alleged constitutional violations, including a lack of effective counseling and too much use of tactics like isolation and force to subdue unruly, mentally ill prisoners.

The Post and Courier reported on the case in a multi-part series earlier this year.

Judge Michael Baxley's ruling chided the department for failures in areas including screening new inmates for mental health problems, properly administering medication and preventing suicide, giving the agency six months to come up with fixes.

"People are clearly dying at the Department of Corrections because they lack basic health care," Baxley said in court earlier this year. "What would you have the court do, sir? Would you have the court walk away and leave it as it is?"

The department said that it's made a number of fixes over the years in how inmate mental health is handled, like consulting with the state Department of Mental Health on evaluating Corrections' policies. The agency also said it is using $1 million in recurring funds to pay for more staff, training and specialized programming to hopefully reduce mentally ill inmates' time in isolation units due to disciplinary infractions.

Stirling is appealing that ruling, but the parties have also been mediating over ways to correct the issues.

This week's sessions are provided by the National Institute of Corrections at no cost to South Carolina. Stirling said that he hopes graduates of the pilot program can train more South Carolina officers on what they have learned.

"Anybody who has ever worked as a correctional officer has worked with someone with mental health issues," Stirling said. "It's a culture shift at the Department of Corrections overall about how we interact with our inmates."