Pennsylvania improves treatment, healthcare for mentally ill inmates

January 06, 2015
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections will hire more mental health staff, train guards to decipher behaviors, and keep inmates out of the cells for at least 20 hours a week to improve the quality of care for mentally ill prisoners as part of a settlement reached in a yearlong civil suit. The terms of the settlement between the Pennsylvania DOC and the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania require the state prison system to pay the advocacy group $750,000 in legal fees and phase out assignments to Restricted Housing Units by mid-2016. Prison staff will also receive mental health first aid and 1,000 employees must enroll in a 32-hour crisis intervention class by 2017. In 2013, DRNPA alleged that the state violated the constitutional rights of mentally ill inmates in 26 state correctional facilities by keeping them in solitary confinement without access to treatment. While prison officials didn't admit wrongdoing, they agreed to revise their policies. A U.S. Justice Department investigation determined that the Pennsylvania DOC used solitary confinement in place of conventional mental health treatment, often isolating mentally ill inmates at a rate twice that of their counterparts. The events unfolding in Pennsylvania, which prisoners' rights advocates say represent a shift in the way prisons think about mental illness and crime, follow similar reforms in New York, California, Illinois and Arizona.