Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Following a March 2013 lawsuit from the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania concerning the treatment of inmates diagnosed with serious mental illness, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has made a number of changes in their services.

Among them, the DOC has established a psychology office, trained inmates to be certified peer-support specialists, employed a mental health advocate and trained all 15,000 employees of their employees in Mental Health First Aid.

All new employees will receive the training as well.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is a federal law seeking to prevent, detect and respond to incidents of sexual harassment in prisons. The State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh is the first in Pennsylvania to meet the 43 requirements for compliance.

“They range from training and education of staff and inmates to how we handle investigations to how we handle data collection,” said Jennifer Feicht, PREA coordinator with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Some of the measures in place include:

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The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ State Intermediate Punishment, or SIP, program aims to help non-violent offenders get needed treatment with the ultimate goal of ensuring they don’t become repeat offenders.

The latest report on SIP found the program does seem to be working.

“The recidivism rate for the SIP offenders is 10 percentage points lower than a comparable rate of a group of inmates who do not go through SIP, who go through traditional sentencing,” said DOC spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.

Citing efforts aimed at increasing efficiencies and reducing recidivism, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced a 908-person drop in the inmate population within the state prison system.

“This is the largest one year drop in the population since 1971 and only the fourth time in the past 40 years that the DOC population has shown an annual decrease rather than an increase,” said DOC spokeswoman Sue Bensinger.

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel has been named to a national task force that will examine the criminal justice system, and most importantly, the issue of overcrowding in federal prisons.

Wetzel will begin work in January with eight other corrections officials on the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections. The blue ribbon task force will undertake a comprehensive analysis of how to avert the continued growth of the federal prison population.  

Lower phone rates for state prison inmates this holiday season are presenting the state Department of Corrections with a classic lesson in economics: what happens when pent-up demand meets low supply.

The agency announced a drop in phone rates right before Thanksgiving. Costs for a 15 minute call (including taxes) went from about six bucks to less than one dollar.

Each year, more than 20,000 offenders are released from state prisons. As they reintegrate into communities, it is crucial they are provided with the necessary resources for success.

Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced the delivery of an interactive reentry resource map that includes useful information for offenders reentering society.

Susan McNaughton the Press Secretary for the Department of Corrections says it is their goal to make it easy for these offenders to be effective members of society.

When most Pennsylvanians are incarcerated, the Department of Corrections must foot the bill for their health care costs.

That’s according to Susan Bensinger, Deputy Press Secretary, who said the department works to pay that bill in a way that provides community-standard care for the inmates while utilizing taxpayer money in the most efficient way possible.

A study released Tuesday by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation suggests that the department has been successful in that mission.

Heather McClain / 90.5 WESA

John Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, is responsible for the state prison system, from inmates, to employees, to a budget of nearly $2 billion. And he's trying to take a holistic approach to the corrections system.

With more than 20 years of experience in the corrections industry, he's part of a sentencing commission that's developing tools to help trial judges better assess the risks and needs of offenders.

He says the key to that assessment is looking at the root causes of crime.

"Based on the number of prior arrests, the age of the offender, based on a bunch of other factors, we can predict the likelihood that the individual will commit another crime."

By looking at these "criminogenic needs," or needs that lead to crime, and by using cognitive therapy and other programming, Wetzel says offenders can learn to make better decisions, think differently and reduce their likelihood to commit future crimes.

More Than 81,000 Children Have a Parent in Prison in PA

Mar 2, 2014
Emily DeMarco / PublicSource

When she was a baby, Kayla Bowyer of Pittsburgh was adopted by her grandparents because her mother was in and out of Allegheny County Jail.

Her grandfather died when she was 10 and her ‘Grams' had to go to work to support Bowyer, her younger brother and three cousins.
 

Though the presence of adults in her home changed, she was not alone.

In 2004, she and her brother were matched with Yolanda and Ron Bennett through Amachi Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization that pairs mentors with children of an incarcerated parent.

The head of the state prison system is reminding state lawmakers they’ve had a hand in the growing inmate population.

The Department of Corrections is requesting about $77 million more for the next fiscal year beginning in July, with most of the boost tied to personnel costs.

At a budget hearing, House lawmakers noted concern with the steady rise in spending at the agency.               

But Secretary John Wetzel said lawmakers shouldn’t be surprised, since many of them have helped pass legislation beefing up prison sentences.

Pennsylvania has settled a lawsuit that sought to force the commonwealth to allow witnesses to view the entire execution of condemned prisoners.

The agreement follows a federal judge’s order last fall that the state shall not prevent witnesses, including reporters, see the entire lethal injection process.

Vic Walczak is legal director for the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, which worked on the case.

A Somerset prison is chemically treating its water supply after four inmates became infected with Legionella.

On July 26, Department of Corrections officials tested the water system at the State Corrections Institution-Somerset with preliminary results finding no traces of Legionella. However, the bacteria was found in the facility’s cooling towers.

Susan McNaughton, press secretary for the DOC, said the prison is cooperating with state agencies to eliminate the bacteria.

Penn State says Jerry Sandusky's assertion that a key witness misinterpreted his showering with a young boy continues to "open wounds" for his victims.

Excerpts of Sandusky's interview with a documentary filmmaker were broadcast Monday on NBC's "Today" show. The former Penn State assistant football coach says he doesn't understand how Mike McQueary concluded "sex was going on" when he witnessed the shower incident in 2001.

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Corrections on behalf of prisoners with serious mental illness alleging prisoners were not given adequate treatment in solitary confinement.

The lawsuit alleges the Department of Corrections violates the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners with serious mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder by isolating them in solitary confinement and not offering them sufficient or proper treatment.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections released a comprehensive state recidivism report this week.

This is the first such recidivism report in six years – the department used to do a much more pared down report.

This report details how often re-offenders commit crimes, what crimes are most likely to end in re-incarceration and how much taxpayers can save - $44.7 million a year - with some changes to the system.