Pennsylvania will stop keeping death-row inmates in indefinite solitary confinement

They’ll now get at least 42½ hours per week out of their cell, and will be allowed to eat and attend religious services with other inmates.  

  • Katie Meyer

(Harrisburg) – Conditions in state prison are changing dramatically for the 136 people sitting on death row in Pennsylvania, thanks to a settlement the Department of Corrections made Monday with the American Civil Liberties and several other inmates’ rights groups.

For many years, the prison system has held death-row inmates in permanent solitary confinement, which meant staying in a cell for up to 23 hours per day, seven days a week.

ACLU attorney Vic Walczak, who helped bring the suit against the Department of Corrections, said he could clearly see the effects of that policy on visits to the cell blocks where those inmates are housed.

For instance, he said he saw many of them lying in bed with sheets over their heads in the middle of the day.

“I think by any stretch of interpretation, this is a form of torture,” Walczak said. “That kind of prolonged isolation—and when I say prolonged, in some cases you’re talking thirty years in that situation without any kind of meaningful human contact—it’s going to damage most people.”

The ACLU and a few other groups filed the lawsuit nearly two years ago, and Walczak estimated they have been negotiating the settlement for about a year.

It includes several changes to longstanding policies at SCI Phoenix and SCI Greene, where all death-row inmates are held.

Those inmates will now get at least 42½ hours per week out of their cell, and they’ll also be able to eat and attend religious services with other inmates, visit with family and have daily access to phones. The DOC will no longer use shackles on death-row inmates or strip-search them unless the measures are specifically deemed necessary.

DOC Spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said the prison system has been gradually phasing in many of the changes over the past year.

“The DOC continues to keep capital case inmates segregated from general population inmates,” she wrote in a statement. “However, within the capital case units, inmates’ routines are now similar to general population inmates, only confined to their specialized unit.”

Pennsylvania has had a moratorium on the death penalty since 2015, when Democratic Governor Tom Wolf instituted it soon after taking office.

A high-profile report on capital punishment was released last year after about seven years of work by a bipartisan General Assembly commission. It found that the punishment comes at a high cost to taxpayers and doesn’t effectively deter crime.

Since the death penalty was declared federally constitutional in 1976, Pennsylvania has executed only three people, all of whom voluntarily gave up their appeals.

The commonwealth’s death-row population remains one of the highest in the country.

An initial version of this article misidentified the DOC spokeswoman as Wanda Murren. The spokeswoman is Susan McNaughton; Murren is the spokeswoman for the Department of State. 

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