An estimated 10 to 20 Luzerne County inmates are stuck in limbo because they’ve been deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial, the public defender told county officials.
These inmates are supposed to get shipped to Norristown State Hospital for specialized treatment with the hope they can return to Luzerne County competent for adjudication, but the wait to get into Norristown is about eight to 10 months, Chief Public Defender Steven Greenwald told council during his recent annual address.
The problem is worth addressing because county taxpayers shell out $110 per day to house each of these inmates while they await a state-funded bed at Norristown, he said.
Obtaining treatment faster also is “the right thing to do” because the county prison is not equipped to bring these inmates to competency, Greenwald said.
“While they’re waiting to get into Norristown, they’re just sitting in prison, and more often than not, they’re actually getting worse,” he said.
County Correctional Services Division Head J. Allen Nesbitt confirmed Monday Greenwald’s statistics and said Norristown delays also contribute to prison overcrowding. The county’s main prison on Water Street in Wilkes-Barre, designed to hold about 505 inmates, has been around maximum capacity the last six months, he said.
The waiting list to get into Norristown’s Regional Forensic Psychiatric Center has become an issue across the region because the center is usually full, officials say.
The only other option for inmates awaiting competency treatment is a state hospital serving county prisons in Torrance near Pittsburgh, Nesbitt said. The county will transport inmates to Torrance for competency treatment if a bed is available there, although the trade-off is increased sheriff transport costs, he said.
“You can never find a good alternative at this point,” Nesbitt said.
Officials from the state Department of Public Welfare, which oversees state hospitals, have publicly acknowledged the issue.
“The department is doing a review of forensic services across the commonwealth and is in active conversations with the Department of Corrections, the Commission on Crime and Delinquency and county administrators on how best to address this matter while planning for the future,” said welfare department spokesperson Kait Gillis.
Greenwald proposes the county consider creating a forensic unit to duplicate the competency treatment provided by Norristown State Hospital so the charges against these inmates can be processed in as little as a month. The plan, which would take months to review, could be feasible if the savings exceeds the cost, he said.
Using a conservative estimate of five inmates, the county could save about $115,500 if they were lodged in the prison one month before establishing competency as opposed to remaining there eight months until they are sent to Norristown. This doesn’t factor in the expense of an in-house program.
The cost of housing inmates shifts from the county to the state when inmates are lodged at Norristown.
Cases in limbo
Without treatment aimed at establishing competency, the county can’t accept guilty pleas or proceed with trials for these individuals, Greenwald said. Releasing them isn’t an option with the unprocessed charges hanging over their heads, he said.
“This is a huge issue,” Greenwald said.
He did not have a breakdown on the specific offenses against the inmates currently lodged in the county prison but said they could range from misdemeanor disorderly conduct to homicide.
The common denominator: their mental illnesses prevent them from grasping what’s happening in court and helping their attorney with their defense, he said.
Bucks County’s prison had contemplated an in-house plan similar to the one proposed by Greenwald providing therapy and training to help inmates understand the legal process so they wouldn’t need to wait for beds at Norristown, but the county backed away last year after concluding the cost was too high, according to published reports.
County Councilman Stephen J. Urban suggested Greenwald examine the possibility of teaming up with other counties to launch a forensic psychiatric service, saying the cost may be less with a regional approach. Greenwald said he would look into that possibility.
While inmates wait for beds at Norristown, the county focuses on maintaining them so they don’t hurt themselves, fellow inmates or staff, Nesbitt said.
The prison can’t force inmates to take medication unless they resort to the cumbersome process of requesting a court order, but Nesbitt said most inmates come around, sometimes after hours of coaxing from staff.
The closure and downsizing of state hospitals in favor of community-based treatment programs that in many cases never materialized has resulted in more inmates with mental health disabilities landing in the county prison, Nesbitt said.
Prison officials try to integrate these inmates with others so they’re not unnecessarily isolated but must resort to special cells for those attempting to injure themselves, such as one who kept banging his head against the wall, he said.
“We are the largest mental health facility in the county,” Nesbitt said. “It has had a major impact on how we do business internally.”