The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

June 3, 2013

Cresson psychologist has new position

HARRISBURG — The former psychologist at State Correctional Institution at Cresson at the time the facility was using practices that the Department of Justice determined were violating the rights of mentally ill inmates has landed on his feet.

As SCI-Cresson prison closes, James Harrington is now a regional psychologist overseeing mental health services at as many as seven prisons, Susan McNaughton, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said.

McNaughton said that Harrington got his new job before the Department of Justice first shared its preliminary findings with the state prison system back in October.

Reached by phone Monday, Harrington declined to comment and said any statement would have to come from the Department of Corrections.

A government database of state employee salaries lists Harrington’s current job title as a licensed psychologist manager in Corrections. He is paid $80,998 a year.

The staff at SCI-Cresson violated the constitutional rights of inmates with mental illness and intellectual disabilities by keeping them in their cells 22 to 23 hours a day, the U.S. Justice Department said Friday. It said the prison used solitary confinement as a means of warehousing mentally ill inmates because of serious deficiencies in its mental health program.

The Department of Justice report noted that witnesses told investigators that psychology staff at the prison were among those who had mocked mentally ill inmates.

McNaughton said that no Corrections staff members have been reprimanded due to the federal investigation. The state prison system has two weeks to review the Justice Department report, she said.

The prison system has already begun to implement reforms, she said.

“When Secretary (John) Wetzel took office, he identified the need to improve our mental health system in our prisons early on in the administration and began working on it. We believe we have a better system today than we did a year ago, and we are confident we will have a better system next year than we do today. We are improving our mental health system, but still have work to do. We look forward to working with the DOJ as we continue these improvements,” McNaughton said.

“Many improvements have been underway for a while. In fact, when we met with DOJ officials in October 2012 to discuss preliminary findings and our response – we invited them to come back and revisit Cresson, as we had already made significant changes. They chose not to, so whatever their findings, they are not representative of Cresson after our changes.”

McNaughton said that one of those reforms was to create the regional psychologist job to better manage mental health care across the prison system.

In addition to the federal investigation, the problems at SCI-Cresson also prompted a class-action lawsuit by the Disability Rights Network. In its complaint, attorneys for the advocacy group described the conditions at SCI-Cresson as a “Dickensian nightmare.”

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