Solitary concern: Pa. prisons are doing better on a harsh practice

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Solitary confinement in a prison cell is not a medically approved treatment for mental illness. Yet too many days in solitary were spent by too many inmates in Pennsylvania prisons who have serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities.

Federal investigators concluded that the state prison system’s use of solitary confinement routinely violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Based on a year’s data beginning in May 2012, U.S. Justice Department investigators said that more than 1,000 prisoners on the state Department of Corrections’ mental health roster were in solitary for 90 days or more, including nearly 250 for more than a year.

Last May, Pennsylvania prisoners with serious mental illness were in solitary confinement at twice the rate of other inmates. Such treatment is not good for the prisoners and it’s not safe for prison personnel. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the state last year.

Fortunately, the corrections department has reformed many of its practices since the period examined in the federal investigation. For instance, fewer than 150 inmates with serious mental illness live in restricted housing now, compared to 850 in 2013. The department is also training prison employees in crisis intervention, involving mental health staff when an inmate with serious mental illness faces discipline and developing specialized units to treat prisoners with serious mental illness.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and his employees were also praised by the Justice Department in a letter Monday to Gov. Tom Corbett for “exceptional cooperation” on the matter.

This is a positive turnaround to an appalling situation that was allowed to fester for too long. Pennsylvania is doing better by many of its inmates, and it’s about time.

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