Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Seeks to Refurbish Mental Health Care

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is looking to make changes within their detention facilities for the well-being of mentally ill or unstable inmates.

Recently, the state has made several changes in its facilities to provide a more suitable environment for mentally ill inmates. Some changes and improvements include hiring more mental health staff, better training provided for correctional officers, and providing the inmates with at least 20 hours a week outside of their cells.

All employees will also receive mental health first-aid training, as well as at least 1,000 employees will be required to participate in a 32-hour crisis intervention class. Some inmates without mental illness will also be trained in these programs in hopes that they will become potential employees after their release.

With the commencement of 2015, the state has also completely eliminated the use of solitary confinement for inmates that have been diagnosed with a mental illness. The U.S. Department of Justice found that they were using solitary confinement as a means of containing the mentally ill inmates rather than facilitating proper treatment, which led to even further isolation of mentally unstable inmates.

In particular, the U.S. Department of Justice officials found that the prison systems were confining over 1,000 mentally ill prisoners for at least 90 days, all the while limiting them to an unbearable five hours a week outside of their cells. The officials also found that the correctional officers and employees were overusing full-body restraints and other methods of isolation, resulting in an increase in mental and psychiatric deterioration as well as suicidal acts and thoughts.

By mid-2016, the state will also no longer allow prisoners with a diagnosed mental illness to be housed in a Restricted Housing Unit, typically called “the hole” in most facilities. Inmates without a mental illness will even have the right to be tested psychologically after over a year of residing in a Restricted Housing Unit.

According to a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Spokeswoman, Susan McNaughton, “We have 4,000 mentally ill inmates, and the number of mentally ill inmates is rising. We are looking forward to partnership with the Disability Rights Network (DRNPA) and to ensuring we are doing the right thing.”

Today, prisoners with a diagnosed mental illness comprise of about 70 percent of the total inmate population in the United States, and this number has only increased due to the poor conditions the mentally ill prisoners are experiencing while incarcerated.

Pennsylvania is making very important progress towards decreasing this growing rate of mentally unstable prisoners, however more states still need to make drastic changes in their correctional systems in order to combat the issue.