The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

April 28, 2013

Prison advocates: Pa. failing the mentally ill

HARRISBURG — John McClellan was convinced that state prison state intended to harm his family. Prison staff allegedly recognized and documented that McClellan was delusional.

But the inmate’s paranoia fueled a cycle of misconduct. Rather than treat his behavior as a symptom of his mental illness, staff allegedly repeatedly placed McClellan in solitary confinement for breaking prison rules.

After seven years of this, McClellan took his life in May 2011 at SCI-Cresson in Somerset County. McClellan’s death and alleged treatment by staff leading up to his suicide is the centerpiece of allegations lodged in a federal lawsuit filed by the Disability Rights Network and the ACLU.

The lawsuit describes the use of solitary confinement on mentally ill prisoners as a “Dickensian nightmare.”

Robert Meek, an attorney for the Disability Rights Network, said that discussions with the state about a possible settlement in the case filed last month are due to begin Tuesday. It is the latest in a series of similar lawsuits filed by advocacy groups across the country alleging that state prison systems have not been providing adequate treatment to mentally ill inmates.

In all cases, the lawsuits were not seeking money, just changes in the way prisons respond to the mentally ill.

“In general, I can say, we just want them to provide the adequate care,” Meek said.

In all cases, advocates spent years trying to get state prisons to make changes before finally resorting to lawsuits as a last resort, he said. Meek said his organization began trying to get the Department of Corrections to change its policies in 2006.

The lawsuit alleges that the mental health counseling that inmates in solitary confinement receive essentially consists of someone speaking to them through slots in a cell door.

The seriousness of the struggle to provide adequate treatment for the mentally ill has attracted the notice of lawmakers. The state House Judiciary Committee has forwarded resolution to the full House that would ask a Joint Sate Government Commission to conduct a thorough review of the existing mental health system in the state.

The author of that legislation, Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Bucks County, said that Department of Corrections data suggests that as many as 20 percent of male prison inmates may have serious mental health problems. For female inmates, the numbers are worse: 40 percent may have serious mental illness.

Meek said that the lawsuit focused on the use of solitary confinement because that provided the best opportunity to demonstrate a violation of Constitutional rights. There is also ample documentation of the detrimental effect of using solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates, Meek said. The issue has been repeatedly examined in lawsuits in other states, he said.

McClellan’s case is likely not the only suicide that might be blamed on the state’s approach to dealing with mentally ill inmates, he said. “We don’t have a lot of data on suicides,” Meek said. The McClellan case stood out as a “particularly egregious example,” of how the state prison’s approach has been harmful, he said.

Susan Bensinger, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said the department is working to rework the way it treats mentally ill inmates, but said she could not speak about the lawsuit.

But Bensinger said the allegations in the lawsuit did not have an impact on the state’s decision to close SCI-Cresson. It is one of two prisons that are being shuttered in a move that prison officials say will allow the department to cut 500 jobs. A new prison, SCI-Benner, has opened in Centre County to replace the two older prisons.

Ultimately, one of the most effective ways to deal with mentally ill people in prison would be to do a better job providing treatment before people break the law and end up behind bars, Bensinger said.

1
Text Only
Local News
  • To demolish or not Tear it down? Fix it up?

    In 2007, Richard D. Givens bought a home at 831 Knobwood Drive in Hermitage for $245,000.
    Today, the city of Hermitage is seeking the demolition of the now-vacant house, arguing the damage from water infiltration makes the structure not worth saving.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • News briefs from April 19, 2014

    April 19, 2014

  • Man admits having child porn

    A Mercer man accused of soliciting and downloading photographs of nude teenage girls pleaded guilty April 8 to sexual abuse of children for possessing child pornography.

    April 19, 2014

  • Police getting new tool to fight crime

    Sharon police working at crime scenes will be putting a powerful new investigative tool to work as soon as next month.

    April 19, 2014

  • Soap box derby finds new home

    The Greater Pennsylvania Super Kids soap box derby for special-needs kids is moving to Sharpsville.

    April 19, 2014

  • News briefs from April 18, 2014

    ‘Nonspecific threat’ prompts evacuation

    Supreme Court refuses to hear couple’s appeal

    Lung Association offering free radon test kits

    April 18, 2014

  • Man admits to choking; rape case is dropped

    A Greenville man on Thursday pleaded down a rape case to simple assault and continued to deny that he committed any sexual crimes.

    April 18, 2014

  • Judge issues tabletop ads injunction against couple

    A judge recently handed down an injunction prohibiting a Sharon man, his wife and two companies associated with the wife from working in the tabletop advertising business within 100 miles of Sharon.

    April 18, 2014

  • Tech waste eyed for new contact

    The current Hermitage solid waste contract was designed to increase recycling while reducing the amount of garbage placed at the curb, and it has lived up to its promise.

    April 18, 2014

  • WaterFire Rekindled

    WaterFire Sharon has chosen themes for its festivals to be held on three Saturdays in downtown Sharon. “Elements” will be the theme July 19, “Origins” for Aug. 23 and “Motion” for the Sept. 27 celebration.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • News briefs from April 17, 2014

    Man arrested for running from accident scene

    UPMC, Southwest eyeing security at hospital

    Crashes cause diversion of Interstate 80 traffic

    Court supports prison term in chase case

    Woman gets 5-10 years in crash that killed officer

    April 17, 2014

  • Officials pledge support to sewer project

    Publicly declaring their intention to donate county land to the Upper Neshannock Watershed Authority, Commissioners Matt McConnell and John Lechner said there’s no need for Commissioner Brian Beader to worry about the loss of the sewer project at the Interstate 80/Route 19 interchange.

    April 17, 2014

  • Griswold Avenue fire Neighbors tried to save victim

    As flames and thick smoke poured out of a Sharon house Tuesday evening, neighbors rallied to try and save the man who lived there alone.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Woman nabbed, sister sought in assault

    Southwest Mercer County Regional police have arrested a Hermitage woman for breaking into a home in Farrell and beating a woman and are seeking the alleged assailant’s sister.

    April 16, 2014

  • Despite good deeds, man going back to prison

    Linda K. Kretzer had nothing but praise for Raymond C. McKelvey.

    April 16, 2014