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
  • News briefs from April 24, 2014

    April 24, 2014

  • Bus cameras will be listening, too

    Hermitage School District is taking advantage of a recently enacted exemption to the state’s wiretap law in allowing officials to turn on the audio recording capability on school bus and vehicle video cameras.

    April 24, 2014

  • Union, city OK 4-year contract

    Hermitage’s nonuniformed employees have a new four-year contract that gives them average pay hikes of 2.5 percent a year and the opportunity to live outside the city limits, while allowing administrators more flexibility in scheduling.

    April 24, 2014

  • 2 principals to be hired

    Sharpsville Area school directors needed a shove to make a decision but the board voted Tuesday to interview candidates and hire two principals for 2014-15.

    April 24, 2014

  • Prison term upheld for sex offender

    A sex offender challenging a 4- to 8-year prison sentence for a probation violation lost an appeal of that sentence.

    April 23, 2014

  • Man, 24, must register as sex offender for life

    The Ohio man who exposed himself to Sharon girls on their way to school last fall must register as a sexual offender for the rest of his life when he gets out of jail.

    April 23, 2014

  • Man deemed predator – for now

    A former Sharon man was sent to the state prison system Tuesday for corrupting the morals of a teenage girl, but the question of whether his penalties under Megan’s Law will stand could be subject to future legal proceedings.

    April 23, 2014

  • Not even waste will be wasted

    Tom Darby admits he wishes the startup of the anaerobic digestion process at the Hermitage Water Pollution Control Plant had moved along much faster.

    April 23, 2014

  • 3rd Earth Fest draws families to Penn State

    Penn State Shenango’s Earth Fest has become a spring tradition for area residents.
    Families poured into downtown Sharon for the campus’ third annual sustainability celebration.

    April 22, 2014

  • Amish clean Shenango River Volunteers protect Shenango River

    Shenango River Watchers has spent more than a decade working to clean up the Shenango and improve recreational access to its water and banks.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • For many, recycling’s become way of life

    When Pennsylvania mandated curbside recycling for its larger municipalities in 1998 – those with more than 5,000 people – there was grumbling about government interference in the lives of everyday people.

    April 22, 2014

  • Many items can’t be thrown away

    The computer screen in front of you isn’t likely to do you much harm, at least not until it’s tossed in a landfill where the lead-filled components start to leak and eventually find their way into your drinking water, according to Jerry Zona, director of the Lawrence-Mercer County Recycling/Solid Waste department.

    April 22, 2014

  • David Sykes' solar panels Earthworks

    While touring Germany last year, David Sykes spotted solar panels resting in a residential back yard.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Burned using Icy Hot, woman claims

    A Grove City woman has sued Chattem Inc. and Rite Aid of Pennsylvania Inc., alleging she suffered a second-degree chemical burn using one of Chattem’s Icy Hot pain relief products.

    April 21, 2014

  • Family outing Family friendly

    “We’re No. 5’’ isn’t a sports cheer you’ll hear any time soon.
    But considering the lumps the greater area has gotten over the years on economic rankings, it’s an outright victory.

    April 21, 2014 1 Photo