Pennsylvania to expand treatment for mentally ill inmates

AP News
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Posted: Jan 06, 2015 4:55 PM

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania prison inmates with serious mental illness who misbehave will be diverted to special treatment units instead of being put in isolated cells, according to a settlement released Tuesday.

The settlement between the Corrections Department and the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, which sued the state in federal court in March 2013, potentially affects about 4,000 prisoners who are considered seriously mentally ill, the department said. There are nearly 51,000 inmates in the state prison system.

The advocates said the agreement will end "a Dickensian nightmare" in which mentally ill inmates written up for misconduct were confined in small restricted cells for 23 hours a day for months or even years, trapped in "an endless cycle of isolation and punishment" that often exacerbated their symptoms and caused them to harm themselves.

Robert Meek, the network's lead attorney in the case, said the agreement would improve the screening process used to identify prisoners with serious mental illness, sharply reduce the likelihood that that those inmates would end up in solitary confinement and provide programming that keeps them on track for parole.

Inmates in the new treatment units, who also could be referred by a prison staff member for nondisciplinary reasons, will be permitted to leave their cells for at least 20 hours a week, compared with five hours a week in restricted housing. About 135 mentally ill inmates are currently in the restricted housing for disciplinary reasons, down from more than 800 a year ago, said department spokeswoman Sue McNaughton.

"We've already implemented many of these changes," McNaughton said.

A monitor will be appointed to oversee the state's compliance with the agreement, which calls for a wide-ranging overhaul of the department's policies on dealing with mentally ill prisoners. The agreement will remain in force for two to five years, depending on the state's performance.

"This settlement has teeth," Meek said. He said Pennsylvania is among several states that have approved similar agreements.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the settlement reflects both sides' mutual goal of delivering safe and appropriate mental-health services, but he said more and better community mental-health centers and special courts are needed to deal with the larger issue of mental health.

"Unfortunately, prisons and jails have become the de facto system responsible for treating the mentally ill," Wetzel said.

Under the settlement, the department also agreed to establish a central mental-health care office, enhance its system for classifying and treating seriously mentally ill inmates, provide crisis intervention training to help prison guards deal more effectively with such prisoners and take steps prevent inmate suicides.