Report highlights shifting role of prisons

Written by Ben Allen and Radio Pennsylvania | Feb 28, 2014 1:01 PM

(Harrisburg) -- A report from the federal Justice Department is sparking a debate over the role of prisons in Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth's Department of Corrections says many services once provided by state hospitals are now its responsibility.


The report argues too many inmates who exhibit mental illness are put in solitary confinement, and says such a decision often exacerbates the illness.

The Justice Department also questions the use of full-body restraints, which it says were used 260 times in the system over a year and a half.

Restraints are meant to be used when prisoners cannot be controlled, but the report says they were often used as punishment.

"If you'd looked at Pennsylvania 20 to 30 years ago, you would have seen the number of state hospitals was higher than the number of state prisons. But through policy changes over the course of those 30 years, we've now seen a complete flip flop. The mentally ill are ending up in our system, and they have to be provided with services," says DOC spokeswoman Susan McNaugton. She adds the department is trying to change the mindset of some staffers through a program known as Crisis Intervention Team Training.

"It provides our corrections officers with an understanding about the ways mental illness affects inmates that they deal with on a daily basis, and it gives them, the officers, the skills so that they can de-escalate a crisis situation."

The state and Justice Department are expected to discuss the findings in the coming weeks.

The Justice Department, in a letter to Governor Corbett and prison system staff, says it hopes to reach an agreement to address concerns going forward.

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