The Brother Who Transformed Family Tragedy into Prison Reform Campaign

By Andrew Jenner | August 9th, 2011 | 14 comments

The story gets sadder at every twist as Pete Scherer ’09 tells it, sitting at a long, bare table in his attorney’s office, hands clasped before him.

It’s about what happened to his brother Carl, younger by 11 years, a “gentle soul” and a talented musician with a promising career ahead of him. Carl was in his mid-20s when the first symptoms of mental illness became apparent, so severe his life began to unravel. Carl struggled to keep a job. His musical ambitions were interrupted.

In 1995, on the advice of his public defender, Carl pleaded guilty to criminal charges after the owner of a car he’d borrowed reported the vehicle stolen. He served a three-month sentence followed by a period of parole. All the while, his illness continued to get worse.

While still under parole, Carl began placing strange phone calls to numbers picked at random from the phone book. More criminal charges followed. Parole was revoked in 1998. With a clear history of serious mental illness, and without having ever committed a violent crime, Carl entered the state corrections system on a two- to six-year sentence.

There, with inconsistent and ineffective treatment under the supervision of the prison system – not an organization with a primary focus on mental health care – Carl entered a final downward spiral. He acted erratically, antagonized other inmates, got written up for misconduct and wound up in the Restricted Housing Unit, where he shared a seven- by nine-foot cell with an inmate who had a violent past. The two were allowed outside the cell no more than five hours per week – a situation not unlike “dropping a goldfish into a shark pond,” as it was later described in legal correspondence with the Scherer family.

On the morning of August 6, 2002, Carl’s descent through the cracks of the system reached it’s tragic conclusion. After quarrelling over their morning breakfast rations, Carl’s cellmate beat him to death. “It was deeply painful. I didn’t know how to cope or deal with the pain,” said Scherer, an electrical technician at Armstrong World Industries, where he’s worked for three decades.

A month after Carl died, an ad for the Lancaster Area Victim Offender Reconciliation Program caught Pete’s eye. He trained to become a mediator with the organization, and in the process, decided to finish his bachelor’s degree. The following February, he entered the management and organizational development program at EMU’s Lancaster site.

But Carl’s death, and the systemic failures it made achingly clear, hovered over Pete. With more than 20 percent of Pennsylvania’s 50,000 prisoners suffering from some kind of mental illness, the next incident, and then the next and the next, were waiting to happen. Something had to be done.

So Pete sued the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in federal court, alleging that it had violated Carl’s constitutional protection from cruel and unusual punishment by neglecting to properly treat Carl’s mental illness while he was in custody. His intention was never to exact simple retribution, or simply seek compensatory damages.

No, Pete wanted to “light a candle in the darkness.” He wanted Carl’s death to keep the next Carl from dying, and days before the action went to trial, the parties reached a remarkable settlement: the Department of Corrections agreed to launch an effort to reform its treatment of inmates suffering from mental illness.

In July 2009, an advisory board including Pete, mental health advocates and Department of Corrections staff formed Support for Inmates with Mental Illness, or SIMI, with a mission to “provide hope and support for mentally ill offenders and their families.”

The group has since launched a pilot program to facilitate better communication between inmates with mental illness, their families, corrections staff and mental health workers at Pennsylvania’s Waymart prison, with a goal of coordinating effective care and support for mentally ill inmates. (On a related note, for a senior project at Penn State University, Pete’s daughter, Antoinette, helped conduct a survey of mental health workers within the state corrections system, which identified specific areas with potential for improvement in the way the department handles inmates with mental illness.)

Two years into the SIMI effort, Pete has been encouraged by enthusiastic response from individual psychologists and other staff within the Department of Corrections. At the same time, he’s been frustrated by theslow pace of change within the organization as a whole. It’s a challenge with direct bearing on Pete’s degree in organizational development from EMU.

Pete Scherer

Pete Scherer (left), with lawyer Dwight Yoder, applied what he learned in ADCP about organizational development to pressure the prison system to change.

“The [department] as a whole has a lot of great people, but someone at the level of a psychologist doesn’t have any input up or down to change the process,” said Pete, who is convinced that a less linear, hierarchical decision-making system could vastly improve state prisons’ treatment of mentally ill inmates without adding to its budget.

“It’s a classic organizational development issue that can be addressed with the right strategy,” he said.

Over the past two years, Pete, sometimes accompanied by Antoinette and wife Marceline, has travelled across Pennsylvania meeting with corrections staff and others involved, driven by his desire to improve the situation of the state’s inmates with mental illness and their families.

“We’ve tried to translate [the family’s] dedication into real initiatives within the Department of Corrections that will enhance family contact and communications for our most seriously mentally ill offenders,” said Dr. Jack Walmer, a retired Chief of Psychological Services with the Department of Corrections who’s worked closely with Pete on the SIMI project. “I admire Pete’s dedication, combined with his real world, pragmatic understanding of the possibilities and, at times, limitations of moving ahead with a new initiative such as this.”

So much has happened in less than a decade, yet there is still so much to do. Pete, who is also a real estate agent in addition to his full-time work with Armstrong, keeps spending his spare time crisscrossing the state, developing and promoting SIMI. And progress does continue to come, in bits and pieces. In June, the Department of Corrections decided to start a second SIMI pilot program at Muncy State Correctional Institution, a women’s prison.

And the fact that SIMI exists at all, according to Dwight Yoder, the attorney who represented Pete in his suit against the state prison system, is a testament to Pete’s vision for something good to emerge from his brother’s mishandling and brutal death.

“Peter was able to use Carl’s death to bring healing to his own family and a lot of other families through this program,” said Yoder. “Through [Carl’s] death, the Department of Corrections is on a path to change how it deals with inmates with mental illness.”

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