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Trapped in jail by a system meant to protect them

Plus, when outside groups pay Penn State salaries.

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A daily newsletter by The logo of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
Friday, March 10, 2023
The competency catch, third-party pay, 'not enough,' drug money, state salaries, arbitration averted, Public Defender Day, and Pitt petitioned.

Rachel Bridgeman spent 49 days waiting for a bed at one of Pennsylvania's few remaining state psychiatric hospitals and a competency evaluation meant to protect her rights in a low-level prostitution case.

But she could not leave the confines of the Allegheny County Jail, the place making her mental health dangerously worse, during that time.

She was moved to an isolated cell in the jail's mental health unit. She refused food, medicine, clothing, and was put on suicide watch.

An investigation by Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism found Pennsylvania's competency system is broken and trapping in jail the people it's meant to protect from miscarriages of justice. 

Read the full report: Trapped by Pa.'s legal competency checks.

THE CONTEXT: Rachel was still waiting for a competency check when the prostitution charges against her were dismissed.

When she was released, hungry and unprepared for the cool September weather outside, she walked into a Rite Aid, chugged a bottle of water, eagerly ate a bag of chips, and was reported for shoplifting. 

Rachel was arrested again — this time for retail theft and defiant trespass, minor offenses that come with a maximum sentence of 15 months in jail. This started a new competency process and another lengthy hold, during which time she injured herself by banging her head on a cell door.

The court would later find Rachel unfit to stand trial and the charges in the theft case would also be dropped. Rachel left the jail again on Dec. 1.

Some defense attorneys say Pennsylvania's competency system is so broken that they avoid it when minor charges are involved, which data show is usually the case. Kate Lovelace, a private defense attorney in Allegheny County, said: "When you're trying to get out of an abusive institution like this, you don't hang your hat on anything that could make it worse."

Read more: Competency cases typically involve minor crimes.


"I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities, and I am determined to make it right."

—Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw in U.S. Senate testimony Thursday
Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism and for a limited time, all new monthly gifts will be matched 12X!

VITAL DATA: Join us during Sunshine week on Thursday, March 16 from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom for a free panel on health care reporting in Pennsylvania, how we fight for open records, and your rights under the Right-to-Know Law. Register here and submit your questions to

Lake Nockamixon in Bucks County, via Don N. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
A partly cloudy sky above a rippling lake.
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.OUTSIDE PAY: A February investigation by ProPublica revealed that Penn State's student health insurance provider, UnitedHealthcare, pays the salary of the university employee who coordinates coverage. Penn State said an employee being paid by an outside group is "not uncommon," but it declined to disclose how many other employees are in a similar situation or how the public can identify them.

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.DOWNPAYMENT: Public school advocates and some fellow Democrats aren't happy with Gov. Josh Shapiro's call for $567 million in new basic education funding, saying it isn't enough to address "unconstitutional" funding disparities that a state court ordered fixed. Advocates wanted at least a $2 billion downpayment in his budget plan. Shapiro says a more fully formed — and funded — solution will take time.

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.POT BUDGET: Also included in Shapiro's first-ever budget plan: a 20% tax on the wholesale price of cannabis products "sold through the regulated framework of the production and sales system, once legalized," The Inquirer (paywall) reports. The proposal estimates that adult-use sales would begin in 2025 and bring in about $16 million in tax revenue that year and $188 million by the end of the decade.

Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.HIGH-EARNERS: This year marked a first for PennLive's annual round-up of six-figure earners in Pennsylvania government: There are now state employees who have cracked the half million-dollar mark. And because so many employees now make six figures, the outlet said it's upped the salary threshold from $100,000 to $200,000. The State System of Higher Education had the highest number of high-earners.

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.NEW CONTRACT: A yearlong negotiation ended this week with Pittsburgh and its police force agreeing to a new contract and avoiding arbitration. WESA reports the contract includes raises and pension plan improvements amid hand-wringing over officer retention. It also includes a disciplinary matrix that the mayor's office calls a first for the city, but which the police union said merely codifies existing practice
🏆 TEST TIME: If you’re confident you followed the news closely this week, there’s only one way to prove it: Put your knowledge to the test with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz.

DEFENDER DAY: Pennsylvania is the only state that does not provide direct state funding for public defenders. Democratic lawmakers want to make March 18 Public Defender Day to acknowledge that fact, via ABC27. And Gov. Josh Shapiro's budget pitch calls for $10 million to change it.

HE'S RUNNING: State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia) is indeed running for auditor general. Kenyatta officially announced his 2024 candidacy for the fiscal watchdog role on Thursday in Harrisburg.

PITT PROTEST: Thousands have signed a petition objecting to upcoming Pitt events they say are platforming transphobia. Speakers include Michael Knowles, who recently said "transgenderism must be eradicated."

NEW NAMES: It's Women's History Month, and Billy Penn has abolitionists, a scientist, an artist, an athlete, and an activist on its list of "notable women in Philly history you might not know — but definitely should."

PA DAY: Sunday marks 342 years since the charter formally creating the commonwealth of Pennsylvania was granted to William Penn. You can see the document for free all next week at the state museum in Harrisburg.

Unscramble and send your answer to We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag. Answers submitted by 6 p.m. on issue date will be counted.

Yesterday's answer: Silhouette

Congrats to our daily winners: Craig W., Susan D., Don H., Kim E., Elaine C., Kimberly D., Barbara F., Dana D., Susan N.-Z., Eric F., Kim C., Tish M., Lisa H., James B., David W., Dianne K., Dennis M., Jon W., Bill S., Richard A., Carol S., Keith W., Myles M., and Vicki U.
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Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media.

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