DOJ recounts ‘disturbing’ abuse of mentally ill at Pa. prison

The Hill

By Megan R. Wilson

A Pennsylvania state prison imposed violated the Constitution and imposed “cruel and unusual punishments” on prisoners with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities, according to a Justice Department document released Friday.

In a 39-page letter to Gov. Tom Corbett (R-Pa.), DOJ said it found the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Cresson, in the western part of the state, subjected mentally ill inmates to a combination of long-term solitary confinement and “excessive” use of force while depriving them of proper mental health treatment.

“The findings in this case are disturbing and expose a serious disregard for the health and safety of prisoners with serious mental illness,” said David J. Hickton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, in a statement.

DOJ’s Civil Rights Division began investigating the prison in 2011.

Although Cresson is scheduled to close by the end of this summer, the report’s “findings have implications going forward,” the department said, including making sure the prisoners are handled with more care during the prison’s last months.

In light of the findings, DOJ announced it would expand the investigation to the rest of the Pennsylvania prison system, but said it would not be as in-depth as this one.

The letter describes, in detail, accounts from the facility’s mental health staff and prisoners about the abuses — including name-calling, spitting in inmates’ food and binding a person with “full-body restraints” while using “excessive” force.

“The willingness of officers to use additional force on immobilized prisoners by, for example, tasering them, suggests that the restraints and the other force tools used on the prisoners were employed to punish and cause pain, not to prevent imminent harm,” DOJ told Corbett.

In a specific case, guards “placed a prisoner in isolation for four days, deprived him of running water, taunted him and threatened to restrain him to a steel slab.”

“These practices have serious public safety consequences because many of these individuals are returned to the community,” said Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, in a statement.

In a 26-month span, 125 prisoners listed as being mentally ill by the prison spent 90 or more days in isolation — in a cell for 22 or more hours per day — with 26 of those spending a year or more, according to the letter. The isolation cells measure about 10-ft. by 10-ft and seldom have windows.

Reports showed those most seriously affected by mental illness only received about two hours of structured therapy per week, or none at all. Seven months after investigators informed officers about the findings, the letter says, it has not changed.

A witness told investigators he saw officers “make fun of another prisoner by demanding he tell them a certain number before giving him his food,” the report says.

“’It was like they were testing his IQ, but in a mean way,’” the inmate said.

The letter acknowledges the rising percentage of inmates that have a mental illness in the prison system and lays some of the blame on that increase.

Since 1999, DOJ says, the amount of prisoners listed on the Pennsylvania state correction’s mental health roster has risen more than 50 percent, to more than one-fifth of its total prisoners.

“[Pennsylvania] is by no means the only state prison system confronting these sorts of challenges,” the Civil Rights Division’s letter reads. “For decades, states have increasingly turned to their prison systems to take on a task they are not naturally equipped to handle — namely, to serve as caregivers for those with serious mental illness.”