Pilot Initiative Aims to Better Track Mental Illness in Dauphin County (PA) Prison

December 20, 2016

ABC27 News

By Chris Davis

How many people in the Dauphin County Prison have a mental illness? The county doesn’t know.

A new initiative the county became a part of recently aims to find the answer to that question and a few others.

“In all my years I’ve never seen anything like Dauphin County Prison,” said Vince Burns, a recent inmate who’s now staying at Harrisburg’s Bethesda Mission.

Burns has a lot to compare it to; he’s been in and out of a few different jails, “diagnosed with bipolar disorder and compulsiveness,” he said.

This time around, behind bars in the capitol city, he said he felt like his mental illness was ignored.

“I struggle with depression as it is, and, I mean, there’s just no hope there,” Burns said. “I’ve never felt hopeless like that.”

It’s inmates like him the county wants to better understand.

“In Dauphin County,” District Attorney Ed Marsico said, “it’s a growing problem.”

The entire system — courts, the DA’s office, the prison — is part of a pilot program now, originally approached about the idea by the state corrections department.

The initiative is called Stepping Up, a national campaign to do better about mental illness behind bars.

“They’ll give us a hard, fresh look at the data that we have,” Marsico said. “They’re going to get us some data that we’ve never had before.”

County leaders want answers to a few main questions, like how many people in the prison have mental illness, how long they typically stay, what happens when they’re released, and how often they come back (the recidivism rate).

The groups involved hope to have recommendations for improvements by the end of next summer.

“You go in there with a mental problem and come out a criminal and angry,” Burns said.

He and two other recent inmates ABC27 spoke to said there’s a long way to go past collecting data. But it’s a start.

“Don’t nobody know that you have a mental condition,” Jamil Brunner said of his recent stay in the Dauphin County Prison. “Like I said, you’re just a number.”

“If they truly are willing to put in the work, collect the data, and implement a protocol,” Michael Eckert said, “then I believe that some good can be done within the community.”

“They really need to treat the people that think like I do,” Burns concluded, “that don’t think like normal people.”

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