HARRISBURG — Some Pennsylvania lawmakers are opposing a state Department of Corrections proposal to outsource mental health services at 27 state prisons in the commonwealth.
Department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that as many as 187 positions now filled by department employees could be contracted out to save money and improve services.
The positions include licensed psychologist managers, licensed psychologists and psychological services specialists. McNaughton said some prison medical, pharmacy and mental health services are already run by a private contractor.
“We have always contracted out for certain medical and mental health services, so this is nothing new,” she said.
But opponents say the work should continue to be done by state employees, and Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon said he will introduce legislation to bar such outsourcing.
“I think corrections and education are core functions of government, and we should maintain control over that,” he said in a memo circulated to lawmakers seeking co-sponsors for the legislation.
Fleck said psychological services workers provide services “to some of the most dangerous people” and also help evaluate prisoners’ readiness for release.
“Any effort to outsource psychological services in the state prisons puts both our communities and the prison workforce at risk,” he said.
About one-fifth of the more than 51,000 inmates in the state prison system require some type of monitoring or treatment for a mental health issue, according to department statistics.
The department already has a $91 million contract with Virginia-based MHM Correctional Services to provide some mental health services, psychiatry and in-patient mental health, and which expires at the end of August. McNaughton said the department will rebid the contract several ways, examining keeping the system as it is currently, or considering the privatization of the work now performed by the in-house staff, and vendors will be able to bid using a psychology staffing model different from the one currently used.
Kathy Jellison, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 668, said the workers decide on treatment and therapy daily and are involved in decisions on parole and release.
“It is not something you want to turn over to a for-profit organization,” she said, adding that it was “a tremendously difficult job that requires a lot of experience and training and education.”