Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Probe to Look at Inmate Treatment U.S. Justice Dept. Investigation Comes after Findings regarding Civil Rights Violations of Pennsylvania Prisoners with Mental Health Issues

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Probe to Look at Inmate Treatment U.S. Justice Dept. Investigation Comes after Findings regarding Civil Rights Violations of Pennsylvania Prisoners with Mental Health Issues

Article excerpt

HARRISBURG -- The U.S. Department of Justice said Friday it will investigate Pennsylvania prisons statewide after finding a soon-to- close facility in Cambria County violated the rights of mentally ill inmates through prolonged and extreme isolation.

Federal investigators found that State Correctional Institution Cresson routinely locked prisoners with serious mental illness in cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, for months or years at a time, while denying them basic necessities and subjecting them to excessive use of force. The department concluded the prison's misuse of solitary confinement on mentally ill inmates "leads to serious harms, including mental decompensation, clinical depression, psychosis, self-mutilation and suicide," according to a news release.

It found the prison came to rely on solitary confinement as a way of "warehousing" mentally ill prisoners because of a disorganized and fragmented mental-health program with a marginalized staff and disciplinary procedures that punished disability-related behavior.

The Corbett administration announced in January it would close SCI Cresson, along with SCI Greensburg in Hempfield, and replace the two older prisons with a new facility in Centre County. The last inmate left SCI Cresson on May 22, spokeswomen for the Department of Corrections said.

The Department of Justice said in December 2011 that it would investigate how Cresson confined prisoners. The investigation was to focus on whether the prison kept inmates with serious mental illness in isolation for unnecessarily long periods, failed to prevent suicide and neglected to provide adequate mental health treatment. The inquiry grew to address concerns about the use of force on prisoners with mental illness and the use of isolation on those with intellectual disabilities.

"We found that Cresson often permitted its prisoners with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities to simply languish, decompensate and harm themselves in solitary confinement for months or years on end under harsh conditions in violation of the Constitution," Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. "These practices have serious public safety consequences because many of these individuals are returned to the community."

The agency noted that the state Department of Corrections "faces enormous challenges" at Cresson and the other prisons because of a growing proportion of prisoners with mental illness. Since 1999, the percentage of prisoners on the state's mental health roster has increased more than 50 percent, so that more than 20 percent of all prisoners have the designation, the Justice Department said. The percentage of Cresson inmates on the roster reached 28 percent, after increasing by more than one-third since 2007.

The Justice Department said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and his staff fully cooperated throughout the investigation.

Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said the agency received the findings Friday evening and would review them.

"The secretary believes that, yes, we need to make improvements to the mental health system, and we have made some improvements," she said. "We believe our mental health system today is better than it was a year ago. We believe a year from now it will be even better."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Lower Paxton, said it was "amazing" that no one had informed his committee of the justice department's broadened investigation and that he planned to ask the corrections secretary as early as today for a meeting to discuss the prison system's treatment of mentally ill prisoners. If warranted, he said, committee hearings could follow.

"The secretary and the corrections administration, they've got to come up with some solid answers," Mr. Marsico said. "It's astonishing, it's unbelievable that those folks would be put into the situation they were put into. …

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