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Pa. prison psychologist loses license after 3 ‘preventable and foreseeable’ suicides

The Pennsylvania Board of Psychology found that James Harrington, former chief psychologist at SCI Cresson, was grossly negligent or incompetent, and that the suicides that occurred under his watch were foreseeable and in at least one case preventable.

Pennsylvania prisoners are shown in an Inquirer file photograph.
Pennsylvania prisoners are shown in an Inquirer file photograph.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Nearly a decade after a 1½-year stretch during which three prisoners at State Correctional Institution Cresson died by suicide and 17 others attempted it, the Pennsylvania Board of Psychology has revoked the license of the psychologist then in charge at the now-shuttered prison in Cambria County and imposed $17,233 in investigation costs.

An order filed Tuesday said the suicides were foreseeable and preventable and castigated the psychologist, James Harrington, for abdicating his ethical responsibility to intervene when mentally ill prisoners were kept in inhumane conditions — including solitary confinement — and were prevented from leaving their cells for treatment.

Harrington still holds an administrative position with the Department of Corrections, with an annual salary of $107,052.

“Mr. Harrington was one of our strongest licensed psychologist managers,” Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told the state board at a hearing last year, after Harrington had been promoted to oversee psychology staff at several state prisons.

The department did not respond to requests for comment on the board’s order. Harrington’s lawyer, Allan Tepper, said Wednesday that he had not seen a copy of the final order and would not comment further.

The order notes that Harrington described himself as “a caring administrator who carried out his professional duties and responsibilities in a professional manner consistent with policies of the Department of Corrections at SCI Cresson.”

The deaths at Cresson sparked a Department of Justice investigation that found widespread and unconstitutional use of solitary confinement for people with serious mental illness in Pennsylvania state prisons, and led to changes including diversion of prisoners with mental illness into specialized treatment units.

The board’s adjudication and order focus specifically on Harrington’s role as the top psychologist, including incidents in which he allowed a prisoner diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder to attend a mental health meeting naked and ordered him to sing “I’m a Little Teapot.” According to the findings, he also approved a behavior modification plan for that man that included six days in a cell with no mattress, blanket, clothing, or regular food — only an anti-suicide smock and food loaf — and no psychological treatment.

The findings also document what transpired in the run-up to the suicides, including that of John McClellan Jr., a Philadelphia man who suffered from schizophrenia, delusional disorder, and substance-use disorder.

Within weeks of arriving at Cresson, McClellan threatened to hang himself, broke a hand punching a wall, and assaulted officers, but the psychology department did not assess or treat him, according to the report. On May 6, 2011, his mood suddenly improved; that night, he tried to cover his cell window and then ended his life. According to the adjudication, “The psychology department abandoned its role with JM.” The state board finding called his death “both definitely foreseeable and preventable.”

John McClellan Sr. of Northeast Philadelphia described his son’s experience in the prison as a “torment” exacerbated by staff who he said encouraged his son to kill himself.

“It’s been eight years now. Every day we try to look for something to see what’s going on. It doesn’t seem like it goes away. Hopefully, something better comes out of this,” he said.

McClellan said the revocation of Harrington’s license was a consolation, but a minor one. “It seems like you can do what you want and get away with it,” he said.

A federal lawsuit filed by the parents of Brandon Palakovic — another man who died by suicide at Cresson after repeated stays in solitary confinement and minimal psychiatric treatment — is pending against the department, prison staff, and mental health services contractor MHM.

After the lawsuit brought by Renee and Darian Palakovic was dismissed by a district judge, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed that decision.

The court cited “a growing consensus — with roots going back a century — that conditions like those to which Brandon repeatedly was subjected can cause severe and traumatic psychological damage, including anxiety, panic, paranoia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, and even a disintegration of the basic sense of self identity.”