By John Finnerty
CNHI Capitol Correspondent
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.