By Christopher Zoukis
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spent 2016 making laudable strides toward helping improve the state of mass incarceration in this country.
Corrections Secretary John Wetzel made a statement in December outlining improvements the Department of Corrections (DOC) has made in public, prisoner, and staff safety, improving transparency and fiscal responsibility, providing more opportunities for prisoners to gain life skills, and providing staff with increased knowledge and education.
Some of these improvements include funding to help 150 people fight opioid use and return home healthier and more productive, training more than 1,300 employees in crisis intervention to appropriately respond to mental health crises, changes to the delivery of mental health services, and directing those with mental health and disabilities away from the use of solitary confinement, instead providing specialized treatment for their individual needs.
Inmates in the state are given numerous educational and other learning opportunities that help improve their chances of successful re-entry, including training in mental health first aid and becoming peer counsellors. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program allows access to post-secondary education for inmates in six state prisons, working with four institutions of higher learning.
The DOC also changed its controversial “food loaf” punishment, — a practice of punishing misbehaving prisoners by serving their food cold after being mixed and baked into an unappetizing brick — resulted in media attention on the mistreatment of prisoners.
The changes and programs implemented in Pennsylvania prisons have improved safety, better equipped staff for their jobs, and more positively prepared inmates poised for release to re-enter society and become contributing members of their communities, since they will leave prison with increased education and life skills.
The 2016 improvements enriched the existing educational and vocational programs in offered in prisons across the state, including GED tests, computer/electronics technology and repair courses, ESL programs, financial literacy classes, cosmetology and barber programs, literacy, Braille, and a wide range of other vocational programs, though not everything is offered at every institution.
Since the statement Wetzel made in late 2016, further changes to the DOC have been announced including that the state is looking to close prisons, with several facilities under consideration. This is not only a cost-saving measure, but also a consequence of reduced crime rates and fewer incidences of recidivism. Two are expected to close, but only one has been selected thus far, slated to shut down by June 20.
In further reforms, automatic solitary will no longer be a practice for former death row inmates who no longer face capital sentences. Currently these inmates can still face years of unnecessary solitary confinement, which can cause major psychological consequences, including anxiety, depression, paranoia, and suicidal impulses. This new policy will reduce these damaging effects looking forward.
Pennsylvania has the right idea when it comes to rehabilitation and recidivism reduction, and these efforts have created better environments for both prisoners and prison staff. It’s a mere drop in the bucket toward reducing mass incarceration, but it’s a meaningful splash all the same.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.