WASHINGTON – For years, Pennsylvania prison officials relied on solitary confinement to segregate and punish the worst of the worst, those whose behavior and outbursts threatened prison security and their own safety.
Such a policy came at a price, however.
During an 18-month period ending in May 2013, two inmates in solitary at one state prison killed themselves, and another 14 attempted suicide. Lawsuits abounded and the Justice Department intervened, accusing the state of unconstitutional abuse.
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Most troubling was the frequency with which solitary was used on prisoners with serious mental illnesses. One survey found more than 880 mentally ill inmates were kept confined 23 hours a day for months, and sometimes even years, at a time.
Now it seems that in Pennsylvania, those days could be over.
The combination of private lawsuits and a Justice Department investigation have prompted sweeping changes that, at its root, replaces punishment with treatment for inmates with mental health issues.
The move in Pennsylvania comes as the use of solitary confinement in prison is a growing issue nationwide. Several states have taken actions to limit the use of solitary, restricting its use on youth, on the mentally ill, and as a long-term discipline. President Obama in Jaunary issued an executive order restricting solitary confinement in federal prisons.
In Illinois, a bill passed this month out of committee, to be considered later this year by the state legislature, to restrict the use of solitary for extended periods of time, or against such vulnerable populations as young offenders, elderly inmates, and those with mental or physical conditions.
The Justice Department inquiry in Pennsylvania was part of a nationwide review of solitary confinement across the country that Obama directed last summer. In January, the Justice Department noted that it had intervened in seven states beyond Pennsylvania where solitary confinement for those with serious mental illness was widely used. Another six Justice Department investigations have been done at juvenile facilities across the country.
Following a two-year investigation that found Pennsylvania had violated prisoners’ constitutional rights, the Justice Department this month notified the state that sufficient reforms had been enacted to end its probe.
The legal director of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, which settled its lawsuit with the Department of Corrections in January 2015, says no seriously mentally ill inmates are currently in solitary. Network Legal Director Kelly Darr puts it this way: “Progress has been made for sure.”
John E. Wetzel, secretary of the Pennsylvania corrections department, said in a statement Friday that his staff “immediately embraced” the need to improve the state’s system.
“Our department took these suggestions to heart from the beginning,’’ Wetzel said. “One-fourth of our prison population suffers from some sort of mental illness, and the treatment of these individuals was a significant concern.’’
Nonetheless, the Justice Department report and the Disabilities Network’s lawsuit paint a troubling picture of what conditions were like within Pennsylvania’s system just three years ago.
Beyond the suicides and attempted suicides, the lives of mentally ill inmates were described as “Dickensian” by the Disabilities Network.
By its count on Dec. 10, 2012, the group found there were 880 men and women with serious mental illnesses in solitary, often jailed in windowless cells as small as 80 sq. ft. for upwards of 23-hours-a-day. Inmates had no access to mental health or drug and alcohol addiction treatment. Inmates traded small notes attached to string, which they called fishing, as their only form of communication besides yelling through the feeding slot in their doors.
In its lawsuit, the network gave horrific details of 10 inmates, all were officially diagnosed with serious mental illnesses. All received little to no treatment. One killed himself. All were self-abusive. Some would smear themselves with their feces. And some were taunted and threatened by guards.
“In practice… prisoners with mental illness often languish in (solitary confinement), deteriorate mentally, and suffer terribly, sometimes for years on end,” the suit said.
Despite the serious allegations, the settlement agreement explicitly says the state does not admit any wrongdoing or violation of law in its treatment of prisoners.
The Justice Department initially began its inquiry at one prison, the State Correctional Institution at Cresson, Pa., which is now closed, but expanded it to include all prisons under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
In its recent letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, the Justice Department described Pennsylvania officials as “significantly committed” to reforming the unconstitutional use of solitary confinement.
The letter, signed by Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant Attorney General, and David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the western district of Pennsylvania, noted that the action to date by Pennsylvania “gives us confidence” that the pattern and practice of violations found initially “do not exist today.”
Nonetheless, the two federal prosecutors warned that they would not hesitate to reopen the investigation if new complaints surfaced or if the Department of Corrections engages in “unconstitutional violations in the future.”
Jim Asher is Washington editor of Injustice Watch.
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