Prisons boost efforts for mentally ill

State corrections system spends $10M this fiscal year on mental health setup

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HARRISBURG -- Faced with challenges to its treatment of inmates with mental illness, the Pennsylvania corrections system has allowed such prisoners more time outside their cells and is requesting additional funding for that and related changes.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that the department has spent $10 million this fiscal year augmenting its mental health system, which he said had not kept up with the increase in need among inmates.

"When you rebuild a mental health system that delivers mental health services to literally 10,000 individuals, it's not something where you can wave a magic wand and it's fixed tomorrow," he said after the hearing.

The treatment of prisoners with mental illness in Pennsylvania was the subject last year of both a lawsuit and the start of a federal investigation. In March, the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania filed a federal suit challenging the treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness who were kept in confinement. In May, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would investigate Pennsylvania prisons after finding a now-closed Cambria County facility violated the rights of mentally ill inmates through prolonged and extreme isolation.

The Department of Justice noted at the time that the state prisons face "enormous challenges" because of a growing population of inmates with mental illness. Twenty-one percent of Pennsylvania state prison inmates -- more than 10,000 people -- receive mental health services, according to the state.

The Department of Corrections said it was already working to improve its mental health system. In the hearing Wednesday, Mr. Wetzel described additional changes. Inmates with serious mental illness must now be allowed outside their cells each week for 10 hours of structured programming and another 10 hours of unstructured time, a direction given Dec. 11, according to spokeswoman Susan McNaughton. Previously, inmates kept in segregated housing for reasons like discipline were permitted to leave their cells for one hour a day.

The prisons also have units in regular housing, where prisoners are regularly allowed to leave their cells for programs and education, targeted specifically at people with mental illness, she said.

More than half of $20 million in requests for supplemental appropriation for the current fiscal year is tied to efforts to address mental health, such as identifying illness and supervising increased time outside the cells, she said. Total mental health spending for the year is estimated at $43.4 million.

Robert Meek, an attorney with the Disability Rights Network, and Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and an attorney in the case, said the parties are working to negotiate an agreement.


Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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