Cresson closing unrelated to charges

A critical report alleging abuse of mental health inmates at the State Correctional Institution at Cresson did not factor into a decision to shutter the facility, according to the Department of Corrections.

On Friday, the U.S. Justice Department said an investigation into mental health treatment uncovered severe deficiencies in Cresson’s mental health program.

Inmates with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities were confined to their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, according to Justice Department officials. The prison used solitary confinement, sometimes for multiple years at a time, as a means of “warehousing” inmates in need of proper mental and intellectual disability treatments.

Department of Corrections officials said improvements to the mental health care of inmates have already been implemented across the state prison system.

“Many improvements have been underway for a while,” Susan McNaughton, corrections spokeswoman, said in an email to the Mirror. “In fact, when we met with the DOJ officials to discuss preliminary findings and our response – we invited them to come back and re-visit Cresson, as we had already made significant changes.

“They chose not to, so whatever their findings, they are not representative of Cresson after our changes.”

SCI Cresson is scheduled to close by the end of June.

“The decision [to close SCI Cresson] was based on the size of the inmate population, the age of the facility and the cost to operate,” McNaughton said.

State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, said Cresson’s mental health inmates were intentionally transferred from the facility ahead of the prison closure announcement.

“They were saying that Cresson didn’t have any specialties,” Haluska said.

The apparent lack of specialty services degraded Cresson’s image, he said, adding, the problem corrections officials should have addressed was housing mentally ill offenders in state prisons.

“We have a lot of people in prison that should be in a mental institution,” Haluska said.

Mental health inmates were some of the first prisoners to be transferred from the facility after the closure announcement was made in January, McNaughton said.

Corrections officials have already implemented a number of changes to address mentally ill offenders, McNaughton said.

Changes include the implementation of a 40-hour specialized crisis intervention training program for all corrections staff, increased oversight of the mental health system and a new mental health policy designed to identify and separate mentally ill offenders from the general population, McNaughton said.

David La Torre, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, declined to comment on the investigation but said the organization is conducting a thorough review of the lawsuit.

Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.