Legislators Seek to Block Privatization of Prison Mental Health Services

HARRISBURG — A bill that would allow 27 Pennsylvania state prisons to outsource mental health services has encountered heavy opposition from state legislatures who are saying such action would put local communities at risk.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections proposed the idea, which would contract out as many as 187 mental health positions including 159 licensed psychologists, with the idea that the plan would be a cost-effective method of improving mental health services.

Representatives Mike Fleck (R-Huntingdon/Blair/Mifflin) and Neal Goodman (D-Schuylkill) fired back with legislation, House Bill 1011, that would prohibit the privatization of mental health services at any state correctional facility. Each representative has two correctional facilities in their respective districts.

“We believe that such an action would not only jeopardize the safety of our corrections employees but also the security of our citizens at large,” Goodman said.

Approximately 10,000, or 21 percent, of Pennsylvania’s 51,000 inmates currently require some sort of mental health services. Some medical, pharmacy and mental health services are already being contracted out of the state’s prisons, including a $91 million contract with MHM Correctional Services.

“Most of these people have committed very serious crimes. Many of them are unstable and we believe that they are very high-risk to our society and they need a professional, someone who understands the unique world of incarceration,” Fleck said.

The privatization debate comes at a time when the United State Justice Department recently released a report detailing its finding in the 18-month investigation of prisons in Cambria County and State Correctional Institution Cresson. The department released a 39-page letter to Governor Tom Corbett describing conditions in which inmates with mental illnesses were routinely locked in solitary confinement cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, sometimes for years at a time.

“The findings in this case are disturbing and expose a serious disregard for the health and safety of prisoners with serious mental illness,” said David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, in a statement. “We are dedicated to ensuring that prisoners throughout the commonwealth are treated humanely and receive the appropriate mental health treatment in an effort to enhance their successful reintegration into the community upon release.”
House Bill 1011 has gained bipartisan support as well as support from labor unions and psychological associations. Senator Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, is expected to introduce similar legislation in the state Senate next year.

“These services are essential to the safety of the prison and of the community, they should not be delegated to the lowest bidder from the private sector,” said Dr. Bruce Mapes. president-elect of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association.