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Professors: Prison fails mentally ill women

| Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rosemary Gido calls state prisons asylums for the invisible, particularly women.

A criminology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Gido said an estimated 42 percent of women in U.S. jails and prisons are mentally ill, compared with 24 percent of men.

In Pennsylvania, the Department of Corrections reports that 44 percent of female inmates and 18.6 percent of male inmates have mental health issues.

Women are more likely to have a co-occurring disorder — meaning mental health problems combined with drug or alcohol abuse — and a history of trauma, according to Gido, the former director of program and policy analysis for the New York State Commission of Corrections.

"We have primarily put people in prison who are addicts," said Gido, who collaborated with IUP alumna Lanette Dalley on a book, "Women's Mental Health Issues Across the Criminal Justice System."

"I very much sympathize with correctional systems and jails and wardens because (their facilities) are the repository for these people, and they pretty much have to make do with what they have."

Gido and Dalley, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, attribute the increase in mentally ill inmates to the failures of deinstitutionalization and the "War on Drugs" over the past half-century, as well as mandatory sentencing laws. Their book includes 14 years of research on jailed women's mental health needs.

William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said women "really get short shrift" because the state system is generally geared toward the men. His Philadelphia-based organization advocates for inmates, their families and former prisoners.

He cites clothing for female inmates that often seems better suited for men because the waists on the pants are too big and the legs frequently need to be rolled up at the bottom. "It's almost as if there's been an attempt to take away femininity that they might otherwise have," DiMascio said.

Diversionary programs

Gido said diversionary programs should be used to steer the mentally ill out of prisons.

She called the Allegheny County Mental Health Court, which started in 2001, "superb." It provides an avenue for mentally ill people charged with nonviolent offenses to receive treatment instead of being imprisoned.

The program, through the county human services department, is voluntary. Offenders charged with a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony can be eligible. Cases involving aggravated assault, arson, burglary and robbery are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

From 2006 through 2008, the most recent years available, the recidivism rate of program participants was 14.5 percent. The recidivism rate for Allegheny County Jail inmates was 52.2 percent, according to the department.

"The goal is to keep them out and on a recovery trajectory instead of going further into the criminal justice system," said Sue Martone, assistant deputy director of the Department of Human Services. "I think there is consensus in this jail, as in others, that jail or prison is not the best place for people with mental or co-occurring disorders to be."

Diversionary programs like mental health courts could reduce the strain on lockups like the Indiana County Jail. An estimated 20 percent to 22 percent of its 200 male and female inmates take medication for mental illness, Warden Carol Hummel said.

She compared her lockup's screening process for new inmates to that of a triage unit at a hospital emergency room. An inmate goes through several rounds of interviews so counselors, nurses and doctors can determine any suicidal tendencies or erratic behavior and choose which of eight housing units at the jail is most appropriate.

The Pennsylvania chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness reviews incarceration issues through its Forensic Interagency Task Force.

It coordinates communication among various entities, including state corrections, welfare and health officials and several counties. Topics include prison diversionary programs, in-prison treatment and opportunities for reintegration into society after an inmate's release.

The state Department of Corrections provides "re-entry" counseling to mentally ill female inmates who are about to leave the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, Pennsylvania's largest prison for women. Approximately 40 percent of Muncy inmates are on the department's mental health roster, department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said.

The department used grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice to create a supervision program in 2002 at Muncy to assign a community placement specialist to an inmate a year before her release. Staff worked with the inmates on deficiencies in life skills and helped to coordinate housing and community-based treatment after their parole.

Although the formal program ceased six years ago, the state hired the program coordinator to continue psychological services and social work involving mentally ill inmates, McNaughton said.

"The program ended, but that doesn't mean they're not getting the services," she said. "All of the mentally ill inmates are put on a mental health roster and tracked and monitored throughout their incarceration."

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