DOJ release scathing report of Pennsylvania prisons

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The U.S. Department of Justice released the results of an extensive investigation into the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Cresson on May 31, finding that the prison “routinely resorts to locking prisoners with serious mental illness in their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day.”

Lone person in prison setting

Solitary Confinement and Disability

“We found that Cresson often permitted its prisoners with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities to simply languish, decompensate, and harm themselves in solitary confinement for months or years on end under harsh conditions in violation of the Constitution,” said Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, in a news release. “These practices have serious public safety consequences because many of these individuals are returned to the community.”

The DOJ began investigating the facility in December 2011. In the findings letter, the DOJ accuses the Department of Corrections of extensive violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The letter also describes the Department of Corrections as using solitary confinement as a way to compensate for systematic deficiencies prison’s mental health. Oversight and appropriate data collection was also found to be lacking.

Though the Department of Corrections is planing to close the Cresson facility, the DOJ is now expanding its probe statewide.

The findings echo those of a class-action lawsuit filed in March 2013 by the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. The lawsuit is filed on behalf the estimated 800 individuals statewide caged in solitary confinement.

“This is a vile and inhumane way to treat people with mental illness,” said Robert W. Meek, an attorney for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, in a news release. “As one judge put it, solitary confinement for a person with mental illness is like an airless room for an asthmatic.

“Pennsylvania should give these prisoners beds in units designed to help people with mental illness, not devastate them.”

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.