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Federal Report Criticizes How Pennsylvania Treats Mentally Ill Prisoners

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections says a U.S. Department of Justice report criticizing the system for numerous reasons, including the prison’s excessive use of solitary confinement for inmates with mental illness or intellectual disabilities, is no longer valid.

“The report was accurate for the time frame but not reflective of our department today,” said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.

The Justice Department says that over a one-year period ending June 30, 2013, more than 1,000 prisoners with mental health problems had been in solitary confinement for at least three months and nearly 250 for a year or more.

State prisons in Pennsylvania house nearly 50,000 inmates.

The report states that Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has made some improvement in recent months but says more work needs to be done.

Wetzel said the report doesn’t fully reflect changes the state prison systems already made — and had made when officials from the Department of Justice toured facilities this past August. He called that “disappointing.”

Wetzel said they have an insufficient mental health infrastructure.

“Twenty-one percent of our offenders are on the mental health roster … which has grown rapidly. And our infrastructure, number of psychologists, psychiatrists, and oversight hasn’t grown at the same pace,” he said. “What happened in some cases is that mentally ill offenders were in segregation, longer than they should have and the outcomes weren’t good.”

Wetzel said this year they have spent an additional $10 million in improvements and are requesting more money from the state.

Some of that is to increase the amount of licensed mental health staff while other monies will go to increase the amount of officers who would supervise prisoners who had been placed in solitary confinement for misbehaving.

Changes made include more mental health workers, reducing segregation, employing peer-support programs, updating their definition of serious mental illness and partnering with mental health advocacy groups.