Prison charting mental health data

Lycoming County Prison officials have been collecting data since October to create a mental health snapshot of the prison’s population in the hopes of being able to better advocate the need for funding and programs to help the incarcerated mentally ill, said Deputy Warden Chris Ebner.

Ebner presented the first snapshot to the prison board Friday, using rosters separated into four categories of varying degrees of mental health status.

The first denotes no mental health history, the second shows past mental health issues but no active symptoms in the last year, the third denotes current mental health issues and the fourth signifies serious mental illness.

Ebner’s snapshot states that about 90 inmates throughout the prison and the Pre-Release Center, or 25.4 percent of the population, have a history of or currently are taking psychotropic medications, have been in outpatient counseling, have had psychiatric hospitalizations or have attempted self-harm or suicide.

The report also shows that about 15 inmates, or 4.2 percent, have serious mental illness, denoted by involuntary psychiatric committments, recent or multiple suicide attempts, diagnoses such as schizophrenia or were actively psychotic during intake, Ebner said.

“You have to have the data to identify a problem,” he said, adding he hopes this data will help the county be better able to apply for grants and initiate programs.

Ebner said he’s been passionate about mental health for a long time. He said he’s noticed the way people with mental illnesses can be treated when left to their own devices. Mothers will shield their children from seeing such people out on the street, he said.

“And that’s a mother’s right. I understand. But the prison system is a lot like that,” Ebner said. “It’s just easier to lock up and forget.”

“But,” he continued, “I think we’re starting to see a movement where we recognize that we have to identify and work with these people. Incarceration isn’t the answer. It’s refreshing, but there’s a long way to go.”

Warden Kevin DeParlos agreed with Ebner, saying people with mental health problems need more resources.

“(The state) needs to invest more into this population,” he said.

“Especially since state hospitals are closed or closing,” President Judge Nancy Butts added.

The next prison board meeting will be held at 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 9 in the county courthouse.