Prison may add another mental health professional

Lycoming County may consider adding another mental health forensic specialist in the prison to help assess and treat inmate with mental illness.

A lengthy discussion on ways to both help the mentally ill and reduce the inmate population at the prison board meeting Friday morning led to an agreement that having someone to help process intakes, counsel inmates and create treatment plans would be a good option.

Currently, only one person performs those duties in the prison — Michelle Finn, from Clinton/Lycoming Joinder Board Mental Health Services.

“Put another Michelle Finn in the prison,” suggested President Judge Nancy Butts.

Deputy Warden Chris Ebner, who has spearheaded much of the mental health-related changes in the prison, said he and others involved hope to present a plan to the commissioners “sooner than later” that breaks down relevant data on how the position would be useful.

“We all know the need,” he said. “We can break it out more.”

On top of the work Finn does to help treat inmates, her presence offers comfort, Ebner added.

Sometimes inmates with mental illness simply need someone to talk to, and she fulfills that role, he said.

Adding another person who can do the same would help lighten Finn’s load and benefit the prison in at least three ways: The mentally ill would get more treatment, people with serious mental illness who don’t belong in prison could be sent elsewhere for better treatment which reduces the inmate population and there may be fewer disciplinary hearings, Ebner said.

Other ideas included revisiting the feasibility of putting an addition on the prison.

Commissioner Tony Mussare asked if the county should consider “a small addition” to house females, the population of which has consistently been at least three more than the prison has room for in recent months, sometimes climbing up to seven or more.

Paying for additional space may be cheaper in the long run than paying monthly for overcrowding transfers, he said.

“There’s no guarantee that, if you build it, they will come,” Butts said, indicating the county might build the addition only for the female population to never go beyond current capacity again.

“It’s certainly a conversation to have,” said Warden Brad Shoemaker.

Butts also suggested increasing staff for supervised bail and the Adult Probation Office, which could mean more inmates who qualify for supervised bail get in it sooner, vacating the prison.

There is a 14-person waiting list for the program, she said.

In another matter, Shoemaker announced that payment to the county for housing federal inmates may be delayed due to the federal government shutdown.

“They don’t intend not to pay us, they just can’t do so now,” he said.

In other business, the board unanimously approved its reorganization. Mussare and District Attorney Kenneth Osokow will keep their titles of chairman and secretary, respectively. Butts will replace Sheriff Mark Lusk as vice chair.

The next meeting is slated for 8:30 a.m. Feb. 8 in the basement juvenile conference room of the county court house.