Lawsuit challenges “horrific conditions” at Pennsylvania prisons

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For more than 23 hours per day, more than 800 people with mental illnesses are caged in the Pennsylvania Department of Correction’s Restricted Housing Units.

The windowless rooms where they live average about 80 square feet, lack heating and cooling systems, and provide no insulation from the ringing barrage of banging cell doors and screaming, hallucinating prisoners.

Hands on cell pars

News from Pennsylvania

Mental health treatment passes for prison staff speaking for a few seconds through a food slot outside the cell or a crack between the side of the cell door and frame.

“The result is a Dickensian nightmare in which many prisoners, because of their mental illness, are trapped in an endless cycle of isolation and punishment, further deterioration of their mental illness, deprivation of adequate mental health treatment, and inability to qualify for parole,” according to a class-action lawsuit filed March 11 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed the lawsuit, which accuses the state of violating the Eight Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment

The lawsuit points to a variety of the Department of Correction’s procedures as proof of the state’s “deliberate indifference” to the mental health needs of its incarcerated population.

The department contains no requirement that hearing examiners take individual’s mental illnesses into account when issuing disciplinary infractions, resulting in prisoners being segregated in solitary confinement even when it is likely the condition will seriously harm their mental condition, according to the lawsuit.

Similarly, the department’s administrative custody procedures, which are used to remove prisoners when they pose a threat to themselves or others, often result in the placement of people with mental illnesses in solitary confinement despite the known effects.

The conditions of prisoners with mental illness has become an increased area of concern for disability rights advocates in recent years (see here, here and here). In October 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture called for a worldwide ban on the use of solitary confinement for people with mental illnesses.

“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.