Feds: Pa. prison misused solitary confinement
Investigators say they kept inmates with serious mental illness in solitary confinement for months or even years at a time
HARRISBURG, Pa. — A federal civil rights investigation has concluded that a state prison in western Pennsylvania kept inmates with serious mental illness in solitary confinement for months or even years at a time.
The State Correctional Institution at Cresson violated the constitutional rights of inmates with mental illness and intellectual disabilities by keeping them in their cells 22 to 23 hours a day, the U.S. Justice Department said Friday. It said the prison used solitary confinement as a means of warehousing mentally ill inmates because of serious deficiencies in its mental health program.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections plans to close Cresson, but the Justice Department said the misuse of solitary confinement could extend to prisons statewide. The department is expanding its probe to include all state prisons.
The administration of first-term GOP Gov. Tom Corbett said it will review the findings and continue to cooperate with the Justice Department probe.
Corbett's Corrections secretary, John Wetzel, identified mental health as an area needing improvement early in the governor's tenure, and has been working on improvements, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said Friday night.
Cresson's misuse of solitary caused mental strain, depression, psychosis, self-mutilation and suicide, the investigation found. Cresson also denied the prisoners basic necessities and used excessive force, the federal agency said.
"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 civil rights, said in a statement.
The Justice Department said Wetzel and his staff are cooperating fully with the probe and have been receptive to the agency's concerns.
McNaughton said the staff has been trained in crisis intervention for mentally ill offenders, and that a new policy will place seriously mentally ill inmates in treatment when they first enter the system, among other improvements.
"Systemic improvements do not and cannot occur overnight, but we have a better system today than we did a year ago, and we are confident we will have a better system next year than we do today," McNaughton said via email.
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