The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

March 31, 2013

Inmates with mental health issues on rise

— The number of inmates coming into the Northumberland County Prison with mental health problems has risen over the years and has caused staff to work differently, Brian Wheary, commander of the Sunbury jail, said.

All inmates are classified when they enter the prison and are kept from the general population if they have severe mental problems.

“One out of 10 have some issues or concerns. They may just be minor mental issues, but we are seeing more,” Wheary said, attributing increased drug use to some of it.

It’s an issue facing county, state and federal prisons across the nation and one that has Northumberland County treatment court liaison Glenda Bonetti wondering whether the cause is situational.

“Are these inmates going in already on psychotropic medication, or are they depressed and anxiety-ridden because they’re in jail?” she asked.

A class-action lawsuit filed in March by the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania accuses the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections of cruel and unusual punishment for keeping hundreds of inmates suffering from severe mental problems in isolation for long periods rather than providing medical care.

Similar suits have been filed throughout the country over the past few years.

Bonetti believes a fairly small number of people entering the jail system suffer from severe mental problems, but people who are predisposed to having issues could develop them if they’re in custody for a prolonged period of time.

She counsels a former inmate who spent nearly all of a 15-year state prison sentence in solitary confinement in a neighboring state who developed serious mental issues as a result. After his release, the man returned to his hometown in Northumberland County and is receiving services.

“He wasn’t mentally ill before he went to jail,” Bonetti said. His newly developed mental issues are making it even more difficult for him to break back into society as a law-abiding citizen, she said.

“There obviously needs to be more mental services in the justice system,” she said. “People need to be educated that we’ll save taxpayer dollars providing inmates these services because we can’t institutionalize them forever.”

 

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