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Pennsylvania Board Revokes Psychologist’s License Over Prisoner Suicides

The Pennsylvania Board of Psychology revoked the license of psychologist James Harrington and imposed $62,233 in civil penalties and costs. The revocation was based on seven suicides over an 18 month period at SCI Cresson, which has closed since the deaths nearly a decade ago.

The December 3, 2019, order said three suicides and 17 others who attempted suicide while under Harrington’s care were foreseeable and preventable. The order found Harrington abdicated his ethical responsibility to intervene when mentally ill prisoners were placed in solitary confinement and prevented from leaving their cells for treatment.

The board’s order focused on Harrington’s role as the top psychologist responsible for treating the prisoners. It noted his “treatment” of prisoners that included allowing a prisoner with schizoaffective disorder to attend a mental health meeting naked and ordering the prisoner to sing, “I’m a Little Tea Pot.”

Harrington also approved a behavior modification plan for the prisoner that placed the prisoner in isolation with only an anti-suicide smock and food loaf while removing all bedding, including a mattress, and not providing psychological treatment.

The order also outlined the case of prisoner John McClellan, Jr., who threatened to hang himself and who broke his hand hitting a wall just weeks after arriving at Cresson. Despite those acts, McClellan was not assessed or treated by the psychological department.

Then, on May 6, 2011, McClellan’s mood changed, and that night he hung a cover over his cell window and committed suicide. The Board found his death was “both definitely foreseeable and preventable.”

As PLN reported (See PLN, March, 2013, p. 18.), the deaths sparked an investigation by the Department of Justice. That report found mentally ill prisoners’ constitutional rights were violated by the policy of placing them in solitary confinement. The report led to policy changes that include diverting prisoners with mental illness to specialized psychiatric units. The head of Pennsylvania’s prison system defended Harrington at a Board hearing in 2018. “Mr. Harrington was one of our strongest licensed psychologist managers,” said Secretary John Wetzel. He promoted Harrington to oversee psychology staff at several prisons, with pay of $107,052 annually.

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

He was still employed by the prison system when the Board issued its order revoking Harrington’s license. The order was a consoling, minor victory for victims that did nothing to change their loss. “It seems like you can do what you want and get away with it,” said John McClellan, Sr., who described his son’s prison experience as “torment” that was made worse by staff who encouraged his suicide.