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Op/ed: Don't privatize mental health care for inmates

November 1, 2007
The Altoona Mirror
By Donald G. McNany

President, Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association

The Rendell Administration's intention to privatize the care, custody and control of mentally ill criminals is more than just bad public policy - it puts public safety at risk.

The state Department of Public Welfare has formally requested bids from private companies to take over the entire operation of Pennsylvania's three secure, segregated units for these dangerous criminals. One of these units is housed at Mayview State Hospital in Allegheny County.  According to the DPW plan, Mayview will be closed by the end 2008, and these inmates will be transferred to Torrance State Hospital in Blair County.

The stated objective in the DPW proposal can only be read one way: Do it cheaper by getting them out on the streets faster.

Above and beyond the stunning naiveté behind this severely flawed proposal, and even greater than the job security of some our state's most highly trained and dedicated civil servants, is the fundamental responsibility of government to protect its citizens.

Handing over this public trust to a for-profit company in the name of cost cutting is an unnecessary and dangerous gamble.

Trying to pinch a few dollars when it comes to sexually deviant and violent criminals who have persistent and severe mental illnesses is outrageous and irresponsible.

One has to question why such a move is even being considered, and why the Rendell administration would spend so much time and resource to pursue such a wrongheaded course. (Incidentally, this comes at a time when the administration is also intent on implementing a new policy that would allow for early release of thousands of so-called "non-violent offenders.")

It seems somebody is being led down the primrose path with that old and tired promise of "more for less."

According to the DPW, privatization will cut costs by 20 percent while - at the same time - enhance services. These so-called enhancements would include an acceleration of the processing, evaluation, and potential release of these inmates.

Tragically, the recidivism rate for these types of criminals is high. How many dollars saved can justify the repeat offense of a rapist or a pedophile?

Does the Rendell administration really want to take responsibility for such a policy?

The Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA) believes that the elimination of more than 200 "forensic" jobs held by PSCOA members is the opening move in an attempt to privatize the entire state corrections system.

This should concern all Pennsylvanians because privatization and our corrections system are a dangerous mix.

For-profit companies are just that - for profit. Pressure to produce a fat bottom line has no place in our state prison system. It will inevitably lead to less secure state hospitals and prisons because what ultimately drives the decision-making is profit - not security.

The group of PSCOA members who have been successfully providing this essential security are called Forensic Security Employees (FSEs).

FSEs train extensively across several disciplines, including security and psychiatry.  It is extremely dangerous work and the risk and incidence of serious injury is high. FSEs have suffered severe and career-ending injuries in the line of duty - deep head lacerations, broken bones, spinal trauma and skull fractures to name a few.

It takes time, dedication, specialized skills and decades of institutional knowledge and experience for these men and women to perform their jobs successfully.

The general public knows little about FSEs and the three secure units inside our state hospitals because their record has been exemplary: there has never been a successful escape from any of these facilities since the creation of FSEs decades ago.

It is extremely disturbing to put these critical services on the auction block for the lowest bidder. No for-profit company can hope to duplicate the years of experience and knowledge FSEs bring to the job. The citizens of Pennsylvania should not be forced to accept a trial-and-error approach when it comes to the control and custody of mentally ill criminals.

If we've learned anything in recent years it's that you don't gamble with public safety and you certainly don't try to do it on the cheap.

The PSCOA firmly believes this privatization effort by the Rendell administration should be stopped in its tracks.

It is unwarranted, dangerous, and it will ultimately pose a threat to the safety of our communities across the state.

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