Lawmakers question Pa. Corrections Department head on inmate health and safety
Lawmakers questioned the head of Pennsylvania’s prison system about inmate welfare and safety in a state House Appropriations Committee hearing Thursday on the Department of Corrections’ $2.9 billion budget proposal.
Acting Department of Corrections Secretary Laurel Harry told members of the committee that prison populations are the lowest level since 2001, and the department has emphasized treatment, education and preparation for reentry to the community to reduce the number of inmates who return to incarceration.
In its supervision of offenders who are released on parole, the department has invested in resources that its agents need to provide individualized attention to the circumstances that each parolee faces upon reentry, Harry said.
“Public safety is our number one goal but we also take pride in being responsible for the rehabilitation of all of those individuals … that are under our care,” Harry said.
The department’s 2023-24 spending plan represents a $160 million, or 5.9%, increase over the current budget. The largest part of that – $121 million – is in the operation of the state’s 24 state correctional institutions.
Harry said the Department of Corrections, like many state agencies, is struggling to fill about 750 vacant positions, particularly for corrections officers and nurses. The department has established a recruitment team of 16 officers who go to schools, CareerLink events and military units to attract new employees.
Rep. James Struzzi, R-Indiana, noted that the department’s budget for overtime increased by nearly 50% to $148 million. Harry said that is in part due to vacancies but also because of unavoidable needs, such as posting officers with inmates who are hospitalized.
Rep. La’Tasha D. Mayes, D-Allegheny, said she feels there is a lack of humanity and dignity for incarcerated women, and noted that a package of bills that would, among other provisions for pregnant inmates, prohibit shackling mothers giving birth.
Harry said the department already has a policy against restraining pregnant women and has established a number of programs at its womens’ prisons for inmates who are pregnant and who have trauma.
Women at SCI Cambridge Springs, in Crawford County, and SCI Muncie, in Lycoming County, have access to a six-month residential program where they can work through trauma with fellow incarcerated women. SCI Muncie also has a pilot program where pregnant women are connected with a doula to provide prenatal and post-delivery services.
Rep. Gina Curry, D-Delaware, asked what provisions are available to women who suffer postpartum issues such as depression or psychosis. The department’s psychiatric services work with women during and after pregnancy and the doula program also provides postpartum care, Harry said.
“We have a lot of individuals that are invested in their pre prenatal care as well as a postpartum in any postpartum issues,” Harry said.
Rep. Abigail Salisbury, D-Allegheny, said she was concerned about sexual violence in prison and the fact that the vast majority of complaints of sexual assault are found to be unsubstantiated.
Harry said each facility has a coordinator to ensure the department’s compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. The department performs audits in accordance with the federal law and conducts full investigations of every complaint, she said.
Salisbury asked if it is appropriate for corrections department employees to investigate allegations against other employees. Harry said the federally required audits are performed by outside auditors who review each investigation.
Harry also said the department has a procedure to ensure that transgender people are housed appropriately, noting the majority are trans women and many prefer to be in a male facility. Those inmates are assigned to cells by themselves or with cellmates with whom they feel comfortable.
Lawmakers also raised concern about the contact that inmates are able to have with family members through visitation and through correspondence.
Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny, noted that while two-thirds of people who serve sentences in state prison end up reincarcerated, those who received regular visits from family are 20% less likely to reoffend. Kinkead noted that the money set aside to facilitate family visits was cut from the budget.
Harry said the department was in the process of reviewing procurement rules on how money from the department’s inmate welfare fund could be spent. She added that since the pandemic forced the suspension of in-person visits the use of video visitation has increased more than 300%.
“We absolutely value visits and those video visits give folks an opportunity who may be out of state, elderly, or can’t travel,” Harry said.
Rep. Ben Waxman, D-Philadelphia, asked about the department’s use of an outside contractor to electronically scan all incoming mail for prisoners.
“What I’m concerned about is the dehumanization of people who are incarcerated and the connections that we provide people that they can make with their family. Those connections are incredibly important to rehabilitate people to make sure that people return to society in a way that is going to be meaningful,” Waxman said.
Harry said the program was a response to the use of mail to smuggle drugs and other contraband into prisons.
“We were seeing a significant number of drugs coming into our system through the mail, whether it was soaking drugs in the paper, and that’s how we started to recognize that it was becoming an issue,” Harry said.
Waxman pressed Harry on the value of the $4 million program, asking her to quantify the amount of contraband that was stopped. Harry replied that it was difficult to quantify because drugs are simply no longer being found in the mail.
“Drugs can’t come into our system through the mail anymore because of this process. And anything that enhances the overall safety of our institutions, to me that money’s well spent,” Harry said.