Plans to privatize psych jobs attacked

A state workers union is criticizing a move by the Corbett administration to look at privatizing psychological services at the state’s 27 correctional institutions and centers.

“To privatize these services to a for-profit company that will look at numbers and not individuals is not only foolish but puts every citizen in the commonwealth at risk,” Kathy Jellison, the president of the Service Employees International Union, said in a release.

The Department of Corrections is asking companies to submit bids that could result in a private company taking over mental health treatment for the department.

That could leave 160 state workers who provide therapy, psychological consultation and crisis services to inmates and officers out of jobs.

Jellison said about 25 percent of those workers are assigned to state correctional institutions near the Altoona area, including Huntingdon, Smithfield, Somerset, Laurel Highlands, Rockview and Houtzdale.

Susan McNaughton, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said, “The primary purpose of this request for proposal is to replace our current mental health treatment services contract, which is scheduled to expire on Aug. 31, 2013,” she said.

The current contract, in effect since Sept. 1, 2009, is not to exceed $91 million, McNaughton said.

Several options are possible with the new round of proposals, including maintaining the current services or “having a vendor provide current contractual services as well as psychology services.”

“We have to wait to see what the bids are,” she said.

Bids will be opened on April 17, and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and his staff in consultation with the Department of General Services will decide what to do.

McNaughton said the union will be informed about the bids and will be permitted to make a counter offer.

She added what is occurring is very similar to a recent move to privatize the medical services in the prisons. After reviewing bids for medical services, it was decided to privatize the system, except for the nurses.

Jellison said the 160 employees who could be affected by the decision provide vital services and to replace them with people without experience in the prison system would have a “tremendous impact on the prison population in terms of testing and diagnostics, treatment and eventual release.”

“They deal with sex offenders, murders, rapists, drug addicts,” Jellison said.

SEIU represents more than 4,000 corrections employees including counselors, drug and alcohol treatment specialists, employment vocational coordinators as well as the psychological workers.

Corrections employees are not supposed to talk to the news media, but one worker in psychological services was contacted by the Mirror and explained what the 160 employees do.

He said he conducts group sessions with sex offenders, evaluates inmates for parole or placement in community corrections centers, provides assessments of inmates who are suicide risks and helps inmates prepare home plans.

Another task workers handle is conferring with officers involved in crisis situations.

He used as an example the recent killing of a corrections officer by an inmate at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. The incident affected another employee who committed suicide just days later.

In the Pennsylvania prison system, the worker said he and his colleagues would have been assigned to counsel other workers to help them through the crisis.

The psychological workers at state prisons have team meetings on a regular basis. They also consult with corrections officers and administrators, and if an inmate “calls for help, he gets it rather quickly.”

The worker said about 10,000 of the 50,000 inmates in the state system suffer from mental health issues.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.