HARRISBURG - A number of Pennsylvania state legislators are opposing a Department of Corrections plan to outsource mental health services at 27 state prisons, saying it could put prison workers and communities at risk.

The state could contract out as many as 187 positions now filled by Department of Corrections employees to save money and improve services, according to corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton. The positions include licensed psychologist managers, licensed psychologists, and psychological services specialists.

Of the more than 51,000 inmates in the state prison system, about 21 percent - more than 10,000 individuals - are on the mental health roster, meaning they require some type of monitoring or treatment for a mental health issue, according to department statistics.

Some prison medical, pharmacy, and mental health services are already run by a private contractor, McNaughton said.

"We have always contracted out for certain medical and mental health services," she said, "so this is nothing new."

But some lawmakers say the mental health work should continue to be done by department employees.

"I think corrections and education are core functions of government, and we should maintain control over that," said State Rep. Mike Fleck (R., Huntingdon), who plans to introduce legislation that would prohibit such outsourcing.

In a memo circulated to lawmakers seeking legislative cosponsors, Fleck noted that psychological services workers "are part of a comprehensive in-house system of safety and security that allows us to operate our already-overburdened prison system. These employees provide direct ongoing mental health services to some of the most dangerous people.

"They also help evaluate readiness for release from incarceration. Any effort to outsource psychological services in the state prisons puts both our communities and the prison workforce at risk. The operation of the corrections system is a core government function. We believe this work to be fundamentally incompatible with the profit motive."

Two state prisons, SCI-Huntingdon and SCI-Smithfield, are in Fleck's district.

The department already has a $91 million contract with Virginia-based MHM Correctional Services to provide some mental health services, psychiatry, and inpatient mental health; the contract is scheduled to expire at the end of August.

McNaughton said the department would rebid the contract several ways and would consider keeping the system as it is or privatizing the work now performed by the in-house staff. The vendor also can bid using "a psychology staffing model, which may differ from our current psychology staffing model based upon the bidder's best judgment as to how to provide psychology services," she said.

Kathy Jellison, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents the workers in question, said the psychological services workers decide on daily treatment and therapy and are involved in decisions of parole and release for inmates.

"It is not something you want to turn over to a for-profit organization," she said.

It is "a tremendously difficult job that requires a lot of experience and training and education, which these folks have."

According to its website, MHM has contracts in 14 states to provide behavioral health and medical services in correctional facilities, state psychiatric hospitals, and other community settings. The company touts its ability to reduce costs, improve care, and have fewer patient transfers.

"We spend a lot of money in corrections," said McNaughton, citing the department's $1.8 billion budget. "We have to make sure we are getting the best bang for the taxpayers' buck."

In 2011, the federal Department of Justice opened an investigation into that allegations that SCI-Cresson provided inadequate mental health care to prisoners who have mental illness, failed to adequately protect such prisoners from harm, and subjected them to excessively prolonged periods of isolation, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The investigation is pending, McNaughton said.

Privatizing certain prison services is not uncommon, said William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a Philadelphia-based group that advocates on behalf of prisoners and their families.

DiMascio said his organization would not necessarily oppose the privatization of certain mental health services, but would want to make sure the quality of care was maintained for inmates.

"We have an awful lot of people with mental health problems in the system," he said. "It's important that we take care of them while they're there."