By Cherri Gregg

By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections signed a settlement agreement this week that changes the way the agency treats inmates with serious mental illness.

According to the federal lawsuit filed in 2013, many seriously mentally ill inmates in Pennsylvania’s state prisons were kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years with little access to the medical help necessary to stabilize their mental condition.

“Many people were in such bad shape they would harm themselves and commit suicide,” says Bob Meek, Managing Attorney at the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. The group sued the Pa DOC alleging constitutional civil rights violations after an extensive investigation discovered the practices.

“It was a pretty horrible situation that we encountered,” he says.

But the settlement agreement, executed this week, promises significant changes, including a centralized office for the administration of mental health care, new misconduct procedures for seriously mentally ill inmates who act out, an expanded definition of what it means to be “seriously mentally ill” and other safeguards.

Meek says his network will be watching and monitoring as the DOC completes the roll out of the new procedures in coming months.

Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said in statement the settlement is an example of the department “stepping up to do the right thing” to address the issue of the DOC’s burgeoning population of inmates with serious mental illness.

“Unfortunately, prisons and jails have become the defacto system responsible for treating the mentally ill. While we continue to step up and face this challenge, we also must continue to call for better and more abundant mental health services in the community. Specialty courts, such as mental health and veterans courts, provide vital treatment services where they should be delivered — in the communities – and they divert such individuals from entering our system in the first place,” Wetzel said.

Read the full statement here.

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