Report criticizes treatment of mentally ill Pa. prisoners

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HARRISBURG -- A federal investigation has found Pennsylvania prisons confine inmates who have serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities in a manner that violates both the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The findings, described Monday in a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett, echo those disclosed in May 2013 about a now-closed prison in Cambria County. The Department of Justice announced at the time that it would broaden to statewide its probe of the treatment of inmates with mental illness.

The letter acknowledges efforts by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to change its approach to solitary confinement and praised Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and his staff for "exceptional cooperation."

Still, the investigators concluded problems remain. In May, prisoners with serious mental illness were being placed in solitary confinement at twice the rate of other prisoners, the agency found.

Between May 2012 and May 2013, the state corrections system kept more than 1,000 prisoners on its mental health roster in solitary confinement for more than 90 days, the Department of Justice found, with nearly 250 of those inmates in solitary for more than a year. And while a small fraction of inmates were held in solitary confinement, the probe found that most suicide attempts occurred in those units.

"Pennsylvania's unconstitutional use of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental health illness victimizes one of the most vulnerable groups in our society," U.S. attorney David J. Hickton said. "We remain vigilant in protecting the constitutional rights of all of our citizens, particularly those with intellectual disabilities and serious mental illness."

But, he said, the state prison system "has the potential to be a model for the constitutional, humane and productive care of prisoners facing mental health challenges."

The Department of Corrections issued a statement highlighting changes it has made in recent years. It suggested investigators would find different practices now than they did last spring.

In the summer, the letter says, the agency began training staff in crisis intervention and involving mental health staff when a prisoner with serious mental illness was disciplined. Over three months, more than 100 fewer prisoners with serious mental illness were put in solitary confinement.

"Because the report focuses on data gathered from January 2012 through June 2013, it does not reflect the reality of how the Pennsylvania prison system currently operates or provides services to inmates," Mr. Wetzel said. "It also is not representative of the services and work that the DOC's dedicated mental health and correctional staff provides."

The Department of Corrections said it has taken steps that have reduced the number of inmates with serious mental illness who are housed in restricted units for disciplinary reasons. Fewer than 150 inmates with serious mental illness reside in restricted housing, down from 850 inmates previously, the agency said.

It also has developed new specialized units to treat inmates with serious mental illness and has refined its definition of serious mental illness to better identify and track affected prisoners.

Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said the department would begin providing mental health first-aid training to all employees, that it planned to improve mental-health assessment practices, and that it envisioned new performance standards for vendors.

The agency has created a multi-day course in "community intervention team training," an increasingly common practice among police departments. The training acquaints officers with various kinds of mental illnesses and provides strategies for calming agitated suspects.

The American Civil Liberties Union last March filed a federal lawsuit against the state, alleging that extended solitary confinement for prisoners with severe mental illness amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Witold Walczak, Pennsylvania legal director for the ACLU, declined to discuss the proposals the state unveiled Monday but said the ACLU is not ready to drop its suit. Instead, he said, he expects negotiations over the suit to continue. "We haven't folded up our tent," he said.

State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone of Berks County, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said additional training and other improvements are fine but do not address the underlying problem.

Too often, he said, people with mental illness are incarcerated when they should be diverted to inpatient or outpatient treatment programs.

When people with mental illness are put in prisons where their needs aren't met, "you're asking them to act out, and they will, and they do," he said, adding that wardens are overburdened.

Mr. Caltagirone is awaiting the results of a Joint State Government Commission report that he hopes will lead to an overhaul of mental health treatment in Pennsylvania. The report is due in the spring.


Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley. Joe Smydo reported from Pittsburgh; Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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