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Prison coordinates post-jail mental health initiative

SUNBURY — Seeking to curb recidivism, the staff of the Northumberland County Prison has implemented an initiative that connects mentally ill inmates preparing for release with agencies that can help them structure their lives.

Warden Bruce Kovach told the prison board Wednesday his staff launched a mental health questionnaire to be filled out alongside other release forms. 

If the inmate identifies as has having any type of mental disorder or other corresponding issue, like needing medication or therapy, the staff determines an individualized course of action, Kovach said. A plan may include having the inmate’s probation officer check to see if he or she has been taking medication on time and attending doctor appointments.

“Some of these folks just need more structure in their lives,” said Kovach, noting that many mentally ill inmates thrive in prison because of the routine. “If we give them that structure on the street, we feel they won’t be committing crimes, making victims.”

Kovach said the prison and adult probation department will also be connecting with county Behavior Health/Intellectual Developmental Services when necessary, as well as addiction treatment and recovery agency Gaudenzia.

“With the right structure for these folks, we can keep them out of jail,” he said. “It’s a cycle we don’t want to see happen.”

He and his staff also garnered additional ideas at the Stepping Up Summit, held in State College earlier this week, he said. The Stepping Up Initiative is a national program aimed at reducing the number of mentally ill people in jails.

Commissioner Sam Schiccatano said he liked the concept of providing some type of aftercare for inmates who need more structure in their lives. As a teacher and coach, he often guided teenagers who appeared to be on the verge of trouble into the military. Many of them responded well to the structure and returned home as well-rounded adults, Schiccatano said.

“Hopefully, that can lead to less people being reincarcerated,” he said of Kovach’s ideas.

Kovach said the initiative is only a few weeks old, so he can’t yet determine if it has made any impact. He is opening to tweaking aspects of the initiative, like adding or changing questions on the release form.

“It’s worth pursuing,” said President Judge Charles H. Saylor.

In other news:

• Scicchitano announced that the prefabricated cells have all been placed at the new prison, and some of the floors have been poured. Roofing on the remodeled section is nearly complete.

He said roofing of the addition is pending the completion of block walls. The contractor has been having difficulty finding bricklayers, which has slowed progress on the walls but not delayed the project overall, Schiccatano said.

“We’re right on time, which is great,” he said.

• Adult probation had 48 participants in November, saving the county 1,069 days or $88,727 of incarceration fees.