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Pennsylvania lawmakers weigh in on need for reforms after investigation into county jails and mental health

Review boards and funding for jails are among the ideas presented.

  • Brett Sholtis
FILE PHOTO: Dauphin County Prison

 Michael Rubinkam / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: Dauphin County Prison

Two weeks after WITF published the results of an investigation into how people with mental illness are treated in county jails, Democratic leaders say policy changes are needed.

The investigation found that corrections officers routinely use pepper spray, stun guns and other painful devices on people who may not be able to comply with orders due to a mental illness. Nearly one in three uses of force by prison guards at 25 jails during the fall of 2021 involved someone having a mental health crisis or who had a known mental health condition.

Adam Caprioli of Long Pond, Pa. talks about his time in Monroe County Correctional Facility on Aug. 18, 2022. Jeremy Long/WITF

Adam Caprioli of Long Pond, Pa. was shot point blank with a pepper ball launcher while detained at Monroe County Correctional Facility. Jeremy Long/WITF

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa said the investigation offers evidence that the state needs to implement review boards that would make sure people in jails are getting adequate medical and behavioral health care. He’s working on a bill to do that.

Currently, county jail oversight boards made up of wardens, county commissioners, district attorneys and sheriffs drive individual jail policy. The state Department of Corrections also has limited oversight of jails, conducting inspections every year or so.

With Costa’s plan, an independent panel would review conditions at jails and look into circumstances surrounding a prisoner’s death. “They would be able to report that to the county, and have the county take the appropriate steps, but also report that to the state as well,” Costa said.

Costa said he hasn’t yet involved Republicans in the process — leaving open a risk that the effort will go nowhere. GOP Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward declined to comment. Spokesperson Erica Clayton Wright declined to answer specific questions but provided a brief statement:

“From a Senate perspective, the need for mental health services has increased and is a matter we are addressing as part of managing out of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wright said. “The Senate has already begun working with all parties to identify ways to improve delivery of services to the behavioral health system statewide.”


Luzerne County corrections officers used a stun gun on Amir Whitehurst, shown here, after he didn’t follow an order to take his medication for a serious mental illness.

Democratic House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton said policy solutions need to do more to keep people out of jails.

 “Violence in our county jails is troubling, no matter who the perpetrator is, especially when there is documented mental illness,” McClinton said. “We need to do more to prevent people with mental illness from becoming entangled in our justice system by intervening with mental health services sooner and more effectively.”

McClinton noted that the recently-created Behavioral Health Commission for Adult Mental Health made its recommendations on how the state should spend $100 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars to improve mental health services. The recommendations include $23.5 million to improve criminal justice and public safety systems, as well as resources for counties.

“We have enough time to enact these recommendations before the legislative session concludes, and I’m hoping Republican leaders in the House and Senate see the urgency and act swiftly to pass the Commission’s recommendations,” McClinton said. 

House Republican Caucus Spokesman Jason Gottesman did not respond to requests for comment. 


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