Mental Illness in PA Prisons: State Officials Call for More Community Support

A significant portion of Pennsylvania’s 38,000 inmates live with a mental health condition and are often incarcerated unnecessarily, according to state officials. Department of Corrections Acting Secretary Laurel Harry recently told lawmakers that 36% of incarcerated men and 66% of women have been diagnosed with mental illness. While the state has made significant strides to provide treatment within the system, Harry believes that more can be done in communities to help these individuals.

Harry praised the department’s mental health professionals, who include psychiatric service associates, specialists, licensed psychology managers, and psychologists, and highlighted specialized institutional care. But she also stated that, while the system proves successful inside the prison, many people struggle to maintain their mental health after release.

She believes that improving resources in the community will enhance individuals’ chances of not returning to the system. Harry’s statements come as Gov. Josh Shapiro proposes increasing the department’s budget by almost 6%, citing staffing shortages that are increasing overtime costs.

The Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative, which allows non-violent offenders to receive training that helps them lead “productive, law-abiding lives” and reduce their sentences, has been implemented by the department since 2008. According to the department, the program reduced recidivism rates by 15% to 20% as of 2018.

Harry emphasized the need for community resources and programs, such as diversion courts and workforce training before release, to reduce recidivism rates further. She stated that addiction and mental health issues are common reasons for people to return to the system, but they are also prevalent in the community.

The state’s efforts to provide mental health treatment to inmates are commendable, but officials are urging for more community support to prevent individuals from unnecessarily entering the system. With proper resources and care, these individuals may have a better chance of leading healthy, productive lives.