Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Promising Practices

Special Needs Unit


Pennsylvania Department of Corrections


As one of the many efforts to address mental health and medical needs in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Secretary John Wetzel worked with all employees across the agency to create and implement Special Needs Units (SNUs). SNUs are residential units for people with physical, mental, emotional, or other vulnerabilities, where they can receive additional services, support, and/or protection for certain populations.


The goal of the SNU is to aid individuals who exhibit certain physical, mental, emotional, or other vulnerabilities which may make it difficult to adjust in general population. As of May 2016, twenty-six percent of all persons incarcerated in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections are receiving some level of mental health services; while eight percent are seriously mentally ill.


After much reflection, consideration, and advocacy, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections developed Special Needs Units (SNUs) to house individuals requiring care in a residential setting as opposed to a general population setting due to some vulnerability that is not related to mental illness. The SNU is for individuals with physical disabilities, sensory impairments, age-related vulnerabilities, or other vulnerabilities, which may make it difficult for the person to adjust to a general population correctional setting.

The SNU serves individuals from every age group, custody level (except custody level 5), program code. SNUs are available at most Pennsylvania State Correctional Institutions. Both individual and group psychotherapy are provided to individuals living in SNUs. This unit is treated as a general population housing unit. Consequently, the level of mental health care provided is equal to that delivered in the general population. All SNU Units have a separate yard, or yard period, separate from the general population.


The Special Needs Unit can be seen as a preventative measure to restrictive housing (RH). People in this group may be particularly vulnerable or perceived as vulnerable if housed in the regular general population. Many systems, including Pennsylvania, see people who are afraid to live in the general population landing in restrictive housing. This is usually for 2 reasons: 1) the person or the facility officials request Protective Custody (PC)and that system houses PC in RH or a setting in which conditions are similar to RH, or 2) the vulnerable person commits an infraction with the intent of getting sent to RH. Therefore, the use of tools like Special Needs Units can reduce the likelihood that people in this population will spend time in RH, as they are in an environment that better meets their needs and feel safe.   


Related Documents

This Promising Practices section of the SAS Resource Center was developed as part of a collaborative effort with the Vera Institute of Justice, University of Michigan Law School, and Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights. We are also deeply grateful to the many leaders across the country who created and implemented each of the reforms cited throughout this section for their efforts to reduce the use of restrictive housing in prisons and jails across the country.

Please note that Vera and our partners do not specifically endorse the practices and policies included in this section. The Promising Practices section features segregation reforms being implemented in prisons and jails around the country. Our goal is to serve as a resource to other jail and prison systems interested in implementing similar practices and policies by highlighting those jurisdictions that report successful reforms.