'Every Day, We Get A Little Better'


Owing to damage to his frontal lobe when he was born, Jeremy Anthony, 38, has virtually no control over his sexual impulses.

As a result, since his imprisonment in 1997 for the attempted rape of a Pittsburgh, PA woman, Anthony has violated the rules of Pennsylvania’s state prison system 77 times, almost entirely for compulsive masturbation.

His punishment inside the system, more often than not, has consisted of solitary confinement. Marcia Franklin, his mother, calculates that Anthony has spent more than 10 of his 18 years of incarceration in isolation and she believes it not only exacerbated his compulsive behavior but led to new mental health issues – like hearing imaginary voices.

“If you yourself were thrown in solitary confinement for a year, how would you react?” Franklin said. “A normal person would have problems.”

It was stories of punitive isolation against seriously mentally ill and intellectually disabled inmates that spurred the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Pennsylvania’s state prison system in 2011. Pennsylvania’s jails and prisons, like those in other states, have experienced a surge in mentally ill inmates in recent decades, which has brought new scrutiny of how it handles those individuals.

In the case of Pennsylvania’s state prison system, the Department of Justice concluded in 2014 that mentally ill or intellectually disabled inmates like Anthony were twice as likely to be isolated than other prisoners in the system. The department described the practice as “the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe.”

The investigation – and a concurrent lawsuit filed by the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania – led the Department of Corrections to pledge to transform care for mentally ill inmates: from new disciplinary procedures to expanded mental health treatment.

Now, more than four years after the Department of Justice began its investigation, opinions remain divided over how effective those reforms have been.

For his part, John Wetzel, secretary of the Department of Corrections, said he’s proud of what his department has accomplished.

“Every day we get a little better,” Wetzel said. “We are eons ahead of where we were four years ago.”

Among some inmates and their families, however, there are concerns that the Department has fallen short of its promises.

“He’s not getting any help,” said Franklin, referring to her son. “And he’s not going to get any until he gets out.”

Transforming Care

Over the brick walls and coils of barbed wire, “O block” at SCI Camp Hill is barely distinguishable from its sister cellblocks – a towering beige building with slit-like windows.

But inside, it’s clear that “O block” is different from its peers. The first sight that greets a visitor, of all things, is a mural. It features a coil of blue and purple paint with bold, yellow letters that reads: “obstacles are opportunities in disguise.”

The mural, and several others spaced between the building’s gray walls and hard steel doors, are new additions to “O Block”, which serves as the prison’s treatment unit for seriously mentally ill inmates. They are one of the more obvious changes the Department of Corrections has made to its mental health facilities.

Standing near “O Block’s” entrance earlier this year, Debra Rich, the unit’s manager (Rich has since been promoted to a different position in the Department of Corrections) said the murals were intended to foster a more therapeutic environment while providing those inmates with a therapeutic outlet too.

“We have some really talented artists here,” Rich said, beaming.

Corrections officials insist however that the changes go beyond just murals. Rich said that SCI Camp Hill, like other facilities that handle mentally ill inmates, has expanded educational programming and music classes for the mentally ill. It has also hired a social worker to help mentally ill inmates transition to the outside world.

Rich said the system was ultimately trying to cultivate a different culture in its mental health facilities.

“Living on ‘O block’ is kind of a privilege,” Rich said. “It’s quiet and clean. It’s kind of a community. It’s not just a cellblock or housing unit – it’s a place where people really look out for each other.”

Beyond changes to the units themselves, the Department of Corrections has overhauled how it determines which inmates should be placed in them.

Pennsylvania’s state prison system receives nearly all of its inmates from county prisons, where most defendants are held when they’re awaiting trial. The system is now better at flagging inmates who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses in those facilities, even if they arrive in the state prison system in a stable condition.

Officials also say the system is better at flagging and diagnosing existing inmates who had never previously been diagnosed with a mental illness.

Likely as a testament to those changes, the department’s internal statistics show a sharp rise in the proportion of state prison inmates who are classified as having either a mental illness or a serious mental illness. In 2014, the percentage of inmates in the latter category jumped from 2 percent to 8 percent in the past two years – which puts the system’s rate more in line with those observed in other state prison systems.

New Disciplinary Procedures

However, perhaps the most crucial change the Department of Corrections has made is to how it handles punishment for mentally ill inmates.

Under the department’s new policy, reinforced by a settlement agreement with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania in January, when a seriously mentally ill inmate breaks a rule he or she is barred from placement in solitary confinement – known as a “restrictive housing unit” in correctional parlance.

Instead, when an inmate with a serious mental illness commits an infraction, that inmate is now referred to a prison psychologist who determines whether his or her behavior was due to a mental health episode or whether it was a deliberate decision to break the rules.

If the former is determined, clinicians will work to address the inmate’s mental health needs and the inmate won’t be penalized. If the latter is determined, that inmate is now placed in what the department calls a “diversionary treatment unit,” which is designed to strike a balance between holding an inmate accountable for bad behavior but not aggravating their mental illness.

An inmate in a diversionary treatment unit is guaranteed at least 20 hours out of his or her cell each week, including therapy and other programming. By comparison, inmates placed in solitary confinement are confined for a minimum of 23 hours per day.

Wetzel said he was very pleased with the new approach. As evidence of its effectiveness, he said that since the department had made the change it had discovered that about 10 percent of inmates who garnered misconducts required commitment to the system’s inpatient psychiatric beds.

“What would happen in the old system, we wouldn’t have asked the follow-up question to find out what the driver of the behavior was and that was what really got us into trouble,” Wetzel said.

Concerns Linger

But amid those changes, concerns still linger about care for mentally ill inmates inside Pennsylvania’s state prison system.

An inmate with a diagnosed mental illness told PennLive that while he was impressed with many of the changes the department had made he still felt there were ongoing problems.

The inmate, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation by correctional officers, alleged that that the department was continuing to excessively restrain seriously mentally ill and intellectual disabled inmates – a practice that the Department of Justice had criticized in its investigation.

In addition, the inmate said, “therapy” within the prison system still consisted of little more than heavy use of psychiatric medication.

“When an inmate requests talk therapy, his requests are often ignored,” the inmate wrote in correspondence with a PennLive reporter. “If he does see a psychologist, he is rushed through a 15-minute “session” and then referred to a [nurse practitioner] for medication.”

The inmate’s harshest allegation, however, is that the Department of Corrections is intentionally misclassifying seriously mentally ill and intellectually disabled inmates.

The inmate said he believed that the prison system was misclassifying inmates both to reduce demand on its revamped mental health units and because it allowed certain staff and correctional officers to punish inmates without fear of reprisal. He said the view among some officers was that mental health treatment was the equivalent of “coddling” inmates.

“They feel that if we were ‘insane’ we would have been found not guilty,” the inmate wrote. “Therefore, as long as we are in prison, we will be treated accordingly.”

Marcia Franklin said she believes her son, Jeremy Anthony, has been a victim of that alleged policy.

Franklin said, for as long a she could remember over her son’s 18-year incarceration, he had been on “D roster” status – a classification for inmates with serious mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities.

But she said, out of the blue, her son’s status was downgraded last year to C roster status for inmates with mental illnesses, not serious mental illnesses.

As a result, this February, when her son garnered another misconduct for compulsive masturbation, he didn’t have the protections that are afforded to D roster inmates. He was consequently placed in solitary confinement.

After Franklin complained to the department, Anthony was removed from isolation and his D roster status was reinstated. But a few months later, Franklin said, he would again lose and then regain his D roster status.

Franklin said she feared it was only a matter of time before he would lose his D roster status again and be placed in solitary confinement.

“My son has been sitting in prison for 18 years with no help,” Franklin said. “All he gets is abuse. They are supposed to re-train them, but all they have done the entire time he has been there is to throw him in the hole for a problem he can’t control.”

Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which advocates for the welfare of inmates, said ….while she knew the department had expanded mental health training for correctional officers, her organization still heard too many stories of officers who weren’t handling mentally ill inmates appropriately.

“There just doesn’t seem to be the recognition of mental health issues and the action that’s required,” Schwartzman said.

Department Disputes Those Claims

Officials for the Department of Corrections vigorously dispute those claims.

In response to Schwartzman, Wetzel said all 15,000 of the department’s employees, including himself, now had a mandatory eight hours of mental health first-aid training, an internationally-developed program that teaches people how to recognize mental health and how to respond.

“We are literally going to be the only system, probably in the world, certainly in the country, which has trained all its staff in mental health first aid,” Wetzel said.

He said an additional 850 employees had received 32 hours of crisis intervention training, a more advanced program to understand and respond to inmates in the midst of a psychotic episode.

Wetzel also disputed the claim that the department overused restraints on mentally ill inmates.

“If you had made that argument before we went through all the changes, I wouldn’t argue that,” Wetzel said. “That’s not the world we live in today.”

…Wetzel said he’s confident that [an upcoming] report on the overhaul will show the progress that the department has made.

“I’m very happy with the level of mental health services that we have here,” he said. “I’m still not happy with the amount of mentally ill offenders that end up in state prison – I think we still have some work to do around that as a society.”

While the department’s critics, like Schwartzman, might have lingering concerns about the quality of mental health care that the department is providing, there is at least little disagreement on that latter point.

“The Department of Corrections and many county facilities have picked up a problem, a burden, that they are not designed for,” Schwartzman said.

“We have a mental health system that has been virtually disassembled, and people end up in prison because there’s no other place to go.”

Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, a writer for PennLive, is a 2014-2015 John Jay/Langeloth Justice and Health Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of the final installment of a series published by the Harrisburg Patriot-News/Penn Live, as part of his fellowship project. The series examines the treatment of the mentally ill in state mental health hospitals. For the full version and other stories in the series, please click HERE. He welcomes comments from readers.

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