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A crisis in corrections: Inmates deputized to help peers with mental health problems

May 12, 2018 GMT

(Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series about how jails and prisons in the area have been inundated with mentally ill inmates.)

At the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands on the last day of April, a class full of prisoners learned about the signs, symptoms and dangers of schizophrenia. The class was led by Lynn Patrone, the mental health advocate coordinator for Inmate Certified Peer Support Specialists throughout the state Department of Corrections. Patrone stood in front of the class asking rhetorical questions.

“What types of things happen when a person is experiencing hallucinations?” Patrone asked.

“Split personalities,” one inmate said.

“They might be rude to you because we’re just a character to them,” another offered.

The program is one way in which the department has adjusted to keep order in the prison system. The theory behind it is that people with mental illnesses are often better at connecting, understanding and calming other people with mental illnesses who are causing trouble.

“You can’t always be readily available,” Patrone said afterward. “So you have this as a resource. These guys are there on the spot.”

To become a peer support specialist, an inmate has to have had a mental illness of some sort and must be serving a sentence long enough for them to receive adequate training to serve as one.

The inmates at SCI-Laurel Highlands who spoke to the Daily American did so on a first-name basis. The staff at the Department of Corrections wanted to keep it that way. Among the things they said was that correctional officers were not equipped to deal with the mentally ill because they’re locked in with the criminal element. Most of them felt they were better able to deal with mentally ill inmates than guards. Suicidal thoughts and depression are what they encounter the most.

“I run across a lot of inmates who are in for life,” said an inmate named Jeff. “They give up hope. And their health declines. You try to give them hope and bring up their spirits, but it’s hard.”

In January 2015 the Department of Corrections reached a settlement with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania in a lawsuit the organization filed in March 2013 concerning the treatment of inmates diagnosed with serious mental illness. The settlement outlined procedures that would send inmates with serious mental illnesses who are problematic to specialized treatment units. To comply with the settlement, the state has spent an additional $40 million a year since that time on mental health training and support, according to department Secretary John Wetzel.

The mental health crisis has altered the way they conduct their work at the state level, Wetzel said.

“The notion that we would have 13,000 to 14,000 of our inmates on our mental health roster, it changes everything,” Wetzel said. “State prisons were built to deal with violent and dangerous individuals. They weren’t designed to deliver behavioral health services. So from having psychiatrists and psychologists and having extra training for our staff, it’s changed everything.”

Looking toward the future

Even though it’s been a tough change, correctional officers have adapted the best they could.

“That population, the staff has bought into showing some empathy for them,” Somerset County Jail Warden Greg Briggs said. “That was one of the obstacles. To get the staff buying into it. But they do now. You still have to enforce the rules. So getting one inmate to follow orders as opposed to other inmates who don’t have mental health issues challenges us. You can’t show favoritism to one inmate.”

Many experts think if there were more psychiatric units, there wouldn’t be as many people inside jails and prisons. It would create a criminal justice system instead of a mental health one. Somerset County Jail Guard Kyle Landis agrees.

“I know that most state hospitals have closed down,” Landis said. “But it’s getting to the point that we’re flooded with inmates that we deem necessary to go to Torrance. And because that place is overcrowded, it creates pressure on the county jails in Somerset, Cambria and Bedford. I think it would help to reopen them.”

Christian Smith, Cambria County Prison warden, said he thinks the same thing.

“The individuals have to stay in our facility instead of a state facility until a bed opens up in a forensic unit,” Smith said. “Any increase in forensic beds for inmates needing care would benefit the county prisons.”

Alisa Roth, author of “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” published by Basic Books in 2018, said American society has never quite figured out its intent with the criminal justice system. Is it meant to be a penalty or something that prepares inmates for re-entry into the outside world? And where does mental health fit in?

“Are we punishing someone? Are we trying to convince them not to do it again?” Roth said. “Why do we lock people up? I think that at various points, we had a notion that putting people in prisons was an effort to rehabilitate them. We had to retrain someone to be a productive, law-abiding member of society. I think we’ve moved away from that in our prisons.”