The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 1, 2014

Report critical of inmate treatment

Parents hope findings spur lasting change

HARRISBURG — Relatives of prisoners say they hope a U.S. Department of Justice report released last week will force the state to reform its treatment of inmates with mental illnesses.

“I prayed this day would come,” said Kesha Curlin of Erie.

Curlin said she felt prison staff have been “trying to make me look crazy” because of her repeated complaints about conditions at SCI-Pittsburgh, where her 22-year-old son, Bahari Campbell, is serving a 10-year sentence for his role in a gas station robbery.

Curlin fears her son will not be eligible for early release – and will serve the maximum sentence – because of repeated problems inside the prison.

She wishes he could be released now, she said, to seek treatment that he’s not getting.

Curlin said when she recently spoke to her son, he thought it was still 2009, the year he began his sentence.

“His mind is blown,” she said.

Complaints by prisoners and their families were reflected in a lawsuit filed last year by the Disability Rights Network, as well as last week’s report by federal Justice Department investigators who looked into allegations that the state prisons warehouse mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement. Whistleblowers who contacted the advocacy group later tipped off federal officials, prompting the investigation.

The Disability Rights Network called treatment of mentally ill inmates at the SCI-Cresson a “Dickensian nightmare.” It blamed the suicide of an inmate at the prison, which has since closed, on a prolonged stint in solitary confinement.

The Disability Rights Network and the state Department of Corrections have been negotiating toward a settlement, said Robert Meek, an attorney with the advocacy group. He said he hopes that the Department of Justice and the other two parties will be able to reach an agreement that satisfies them all.

The Justice Department report found problems were not confined to Cresson. At some prisons, investigators discovered psychology departments that were understaffed, mental health professionals who said they are ignored and poor record-keeping, according to the report.

Investigators cited one case in which prison staff didn’t provide an inmate medicine that had previously worked for him, then placed the prisoner in solitary confinement for acting inappropriately.

“In solitary, he decompensated badly and attempted suicide,” the report noted.

State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said scrutiny from the lawsuit and Justice Department investigation has already prompted dramatic improvements. Case in point: A secure treatment unit at SCI-Rockview, created as an alternative to solitary confinement for prisoners with mental illness.

The unit houses 26 inmates in a small building in the middle of the sprawling complex with 2,400 prisoners outside State College. Inmates inside the unit still spend the bulk of their time isolated, but they are given more resources and opportunities to socialize than they would have otherwise.

According to the Department of Corrections, about 150 prisoners with mental illness remain in restricted housing units throughout the state. That’s down from 850 who were housed in solitary confinement when the issue first came to light.

Overall the state housed 2,181 prisoners in solitary confinement at the end of 2013, out of an inmate population of 50,000, according to information provided by the prison system.

Meek at the Disability Rights Network said that he has been focused on getting the Department of Corrections to come up with a final and complete set of reforms. What the prison has done in the meantime doesn’t really matter, he said.

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