HARRISBURG – Turning closed or partially-used state mental hospitals into state prisons to hold inmates with mental health issues is an idea being kicked around by House lawmakers.
The House Judiciary Committee is exploring whether it makes sense to transfer an estimated 20 percent of the 51,000 state prison inmates with mental health issues from prisons holding a general population to facilities that were once part of an extensive network of state-run institutions for the mentally ill and mentally retarded.
Committee members are pursuing this idea as an alternative to the state corrections department’s plan to transfer 2,000 non-violent state prison inmates to medium-security prisons in Virginia and Michigan for several years.
The department is undertaking the out-of-state transfers to ease overcrowding while three new medium-security prisons are built in Fayette, Centre and Montgomery counties.
There is concern among members that the department’s estimate that the plan will cost Pennsylvania $62 per day for each transferred inmate is too low. This would amount to an estimated $135 million for three years.
The corrections budget could top $2 billion for the first time in fiscal 2010-11, said panel chairman Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Reading, at a meeting last week. While lawmakers have not traditionally challenged corrections spending requests, the continuing fiscal problems facing state government will put a spotlight on any agency seeking large increases, he added.
“We will all be looking to save costs,” Caltagirone said.
Removing 8,000 to 10,000 inmates with mental health issues from the general population could serve as a safety valve to overcrowded conditions, he said.
The state Department of Public Welfare operates three units for inmates with mental issues at Torrance, Warren and Norristown state hospitals. Inmates go to these facilities by order of sentencing judges. A specially trained staff runs the units.
Pennsylvania has closed and downsized many of its state mental hospitals and mental disability centers during the past three decades and placed many former residents in community-based care and living programs. Reusing some of the aging buildings at these facilities would involve environmental remediation work with asbestos removal and security upgrades.
One of the first state mental hospitals to face closure, Retreat in Hunlock Creek, was converted to a state prison for general population inmates in the 1980s.
The corrections department places inmates based on sentencing orders from trial judges, spokeswoman Susan Bensinger said. Therefore, changes in sentencing policies would address the issue lawmakers have raised.