Pennsylvania corrections chief says effort to cut violence inside prisons is showing promise

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Pennsylvania's prisons chief said Friday a pilot program designed to reduce violence inside the system has shown remarkable promise, and officials are in the process of expanding it.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told reporters that attacks inside Forest State Prison are down about 40 percent after the administration took a new approach last year that centered on the consistent use of housing unit lockdowns when more serious incidents occur there.

Wetzel says officials met with several hundred selected inmates before instituting a new policy regarding lockdowns.

They are automatically and swiftly put in place following any incidents that involve multiple people, weapons or staff, or if anyone requires hospital treatment, he said. The result has been a drop in assaults, fights and threats against employees. The same or similar programs will be tried out at two other prisons.

At a press conference in the governor's Capitol offices, Wetzel also described efforts to improve the prisoner release process that occurs 18,000 times a year, when inmates are sent home after serving their sentences.

The Corrections Department is taking steps to ensure inmates have health coverage when they get out, something that's particularly important for those currently taking medication to address substance abuse and mental health problems.

He said incentives to reduce recidivism that are written into contracts with private vendors who run halfway houses for the department seem to be helping parolees stay out of prison.

Sixty-five percent of new inmates have substance abuse issues, he said, and nearly 1 in 4 has mental health needs. Last year 12 percent of new inmates were addicted to heroin, a figure that's nearly double what it was a decade or so ago.

"These are drivers for committing crimes" upon release, Wetzel said.

Corrections recently set up its first mental health-specific unit, on the grounds of Wernersville State Hospital near Reading. In May, it named its first ever mental health advocate.

Another barrier for successful re-entry into communities, he said, is being able to earn a living, both to pay bills and whatever fines and costs remain from the court system. The department recently ran a job fair at a western Pennsylvania prison with the help of building trades unions from the Pittsburgh area.

This story has been corrected to show the lockdown policy applies to individual housing units, not the entire prison.

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