Pa. may outsource all mental health services for inmates

    About 10,000 inmates in Pennsylvania state prisons require mental health services — and those services may be completely privatized this summer. Mental health professionals say the move could improve the quality of care.



    The state Department of Corrections already contracts some mental health services to outside providers. Contracts with current providers are up in August, and new bids are coming in. During that process, the department may decide to farm nearly 200 positions now still filled with department of corrections employees.

    Reviewing costs and benefits of outsourcing

    While cost is an important consideration, several factors will guide the department’s decisionm, said Sue Bensinger, a department spokeswoman.

    “Delivery of the service and effectiveness of the service that they are going to provide to the inmate population is paramount when you’re looking at this scope of a contract,” she said.

    She says no decision has been made yet. “We’re looking at a few different ways to provide mental health services,” she explained. “Would it be most beneficial to contract everything, or keep it business as usual, keeping it the way we’re providing it now.”

    Move could result in improved care

    New contracts and increased privatization could result in improved services that go beyond treating symptoms, and would be aimed at rehabilitation, according to Jeffrey Draine, a professor of social work at Temple University.

    “Dual diagnosis treatment for people who also have substance abuse disorders, managing their own illness and perhaps even peer support from other people, that’s something that could be organized inside the prison,” said Draine, who and has studied mental health services in prisons.

    Draine and other mental health experts say the contracts have to come with clear expectations, and delivery of care must be monitored closely.

    Prison services should also be “trauma-informed,” meaning that they take into account that many inmates likely have a long history of trauma and toxic life stress, said Nancy Wolff, director of the Center for Mental Health Services and Criminal Justice Research at Rutgers University. She said this type of care, which is rapidly gaining popularity with many service providers, is not a well-known concept among prison providers.

    Opposing the move

    Pennsylvania state Reps. Mike Fleck and Neal Goodman, who have spoken out against privatizing mental health services, are soliciting sponsorship for legislation that would prohibit outsourcing of psychological services.

    “Psychological services employees work on cellblocks with corrections officers, nurses and others,” the lawmakers said in a memo. “They are part of a comprehensive in-house system of safety and security that allows us to operate our already overburdened prison system.”

    Fleck and Goodman say the quality of this kind of work would be jeopardized by outsourcing.

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