(This article will appear in the February 2015 edition of The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) PA York County newsletter. The January 2015 edition can be found at http://www.namiyork.org/Support/Newsletters/NAMINewsletterJanuary2015.pdf)
On January 6, 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (“DOC”) settled a lawsuit with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. The Disability Rights Network (“DRN”), a non-profit organization advocating for the rights of Pennsylvania citizens with mental illnesses, filed the action in March, 2013 in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania “to stop the cruel and unusual punishment of prisoners in Pennsylvania diagnosed with serious mental illness.” The suit alleged that the Department of Corrections placed mentally ill prisoners into “Restricted Housing Units” or isolated cells”under horrific conditions” that did not take into account their mental illness. Once placed in the “Restricted Housing Units,” prisoners were confined in the cells for 23 hours per day on weekdays and 24 hours per day on weekends. While confined to the isolated cells, where the lights are typically on at all times, the suit alleged that the prisoners would have very little or no human contact and would not have access to mental health treatment. The suit also alleged that these conditions exacerbate symptoms associated with mental illness, including hallucinations, paranoia and self-harm actions, including head banging. Finally, the suit alleged that, unlike correctional systems in in other states, the Pennsylvania DOC did not adequately consider prisoners’ mental illness before forcing them into the Restricted Housing Units, did not provide sufficient beds in units designed for prisoners with mental illness and did not take sufficient measures to reduce the risk of serious harm to the prisoners.
In announcing the settlement, the parties acknowledged that the DOC has implemented improvements and that the improvements have been ongoing during the course of the litigation and independent of the litigation. While the Department of Corrections expressly denied violating any constitutional rights, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel (the named defendant in the action) acknowledged that the Pennsylvania prison system must continue to improve the manner in which the system identifies and treats mentally ill inmates.
“Unfortunately, prisons and jails have become the delegated system responsible for treating the mentally ill. While we continue to step up and face this challenge, we also must continue to call for better and more abundant mental health services in the community,” Wetzel said while also noting that specialty courts, such as mental health and veteran courts, are “vital” to providing treatment services and diverting mentally ill patients from the prison system.
As part of the settlement, every inmate entering the custody of the Department of Corrections will be given a psychological evaluation to determine whether the inmate has a serious mental illness. An inmate with evidence of a serious mental illness will receive a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation conducted by a psychiatrist or Certified Nurse Practitioner – Psychiatric Services. Most importantly, the settlement calls for the DOC to ensure that all inmates identified as suffering from a serious mental illness will receive clinically appropriate mental health care that is consistent with the inmates identified needs and that all clinical contacts will be documented.
In a press release, the Department of Corrections identified a number of improvements to its mental health system, citing:
The establishment of a Constitutional Office for the Administration of Mental Healthcare;
The development of new treatment units and the implementation of misconduct diversionary procedures for inmates diagnosed with serious mental illness; and
Updating the Department of Corrections’ definition of serious mental illness to better capture and track individuals suffering from severe mental illness and in need of the most treatment services.
While these changes and improvements are welcomed, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania must continue to make mental healthcare available to men, women and children in need of treatment and continue to invest in alternatives to incarceration for mentally ill individuals.
Andy Norfleet is an attorney representing men, woman and children throughout Pennsylvania with claims for Social Security disability - with a special interest in representing men, women and children suffering from with mental illnesses.
For a free case evaluation, please contact Andy at (717) 737-7574 or request a free case evaluation..