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
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
"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
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. …