New mental health contract at state prisons tailor-made

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Kate Giammarise / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG — The state Department of Corrections will include performance incentives — and penalties — in a new $91 million, five-year contract for mental health services at state prisons.

State officials are touting the performance-incentive changes as a first-of-its kind contract.

“No longer are we issuing contracts for just a service,” said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel in a statement Monday.

Virginia-based MHM Services will receive incentives to reduce the number of misconducts for mentally ill offenders, reduce the number of inmates recommitted to mental health units and lower the number of recommitments to prison residential treatment units, according to a statement from the department. MHM Services had previously been providing psychiatric services for state inmates.

The issue of mental health services in the department’s 26 prisons is a pressing one.

Twenty-one percent of state prison inmates — more than 10,000 people — receive mental health services, according to department statistics.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice said it planned to investigate prisons statewide after finding a now-shuttered prison in Cambria County violated the rights of mentally ill inmates through prolonged and extreme isolation.

Mental health services for inmates “absolutely has to be a priority,” said Ann Schwartzman, director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a group that advocates for prisoners and their families.

Ms. Schwartzman said her organization has been particularly concerned with an abundance of mentally ill inmates being placed in restricted housing units.

Along with incentives for good performance, MHM could “face sanctions for failure to achieve baseline results,” according to the department. Additionally, MHM Services will be required to “maintain or exceed an established baseline medication compliance rate.”

MHM has contracts in 10 states to provide behavioral health and medical services in “correctional facilities, state psychiatric hospitals, and other community settings,” according to the company’s website. The company had already been providing psychiatric services to Pennsylvania inmates. When the contract expired on Nov. 30, department officials said that provided the opportunity to update it with performance measures.

Earlier this year, the state said it was considering privatizing psychological services for inmates but appears to have decided against that, at least for now. The move would have impacted more than 180 corrections staff, and the suggestion of such a change had caused outcry from union officials and some legislators.

Psychiatric services involve prescribing medication, while psychology staff conduct assessment and individual and group treatment.