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Pennsylvania inmates sue over ‘tortuous conditions’ of solitary confinement

  • By Brooke Schultz/ The Associated Press/Report for America
The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia.

 Emma Lee / WHYY

The correctional complex on State Road in Philadelphia.

Solitary confinement conditions in a Pennsylvania state prison are unconstitutional, worsening and creating mental illness in those held there, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of five inmates who say they have spent long periods in “torturous conditions.”

With limited mental health resources, some of the plaintiffs inside the Department of Corrections’ State Correctional Institution at Fayette have attempted suicide, flooded their cells with dirty toilet water, punched walls and written in their own blood, their lawyers said.

The lawsuit accuses prison officials of placing inmates into confinement based on secret evidence, leaving them unable to challenge their placement. Those practices violate the constitutional rights of those incarcerated to due process and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, their lawyers said.

A number of lawsuits nationally have targeted the conditions of solitary confinement, saying that the treatment of incarcerated people there has led to psychiatric episodes of self-mutilation and death due to lack of adequate care.

The lawsuit asks the court to end the use of secret evidence and solitary confinement for mental health patients. It also seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections declined comment, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit said that a majority of the 30 to 50 men held in solitary confinement in the prison are Black and Latino and that the five plaintiffs have spent at least 11 months in solitary confinement.

According to the lawsuit, the men are placed in solitary confinement if they’re identified as posing possible threats to the security, safety and operation of the facility.

Those incarcerated are placed in small rooms, about 80 square feet, for 22 hours a day. The rooms have minimal furniture, no windows facing outside and lights are on at all times, the lawsuit said.

The men are granted one hour of recreation time, in a cage outside, but many refuse it, due to declining mental health, the lawsuit said.

In a statement, Angel Maldonado, one of the plaintiffs, called the confinement “draconian.”

“I’m a strong person, but it broke me down, I felt like I was trapped,” Maldonado said. “I had brothers in there swallowing batteries, razors, tying nooses. We organized this lawsuit because we felt it was a time to make change, we felt like if we didn’t do something positive or take a stand the DOC were going to keep doing this.”

The lawsuit says Maldonado had come to the prison with no history of psychiatric treatment. But mental health treatment in the prison is “grossly inadequate” and Maldonado’s time in solitary confinement caused insomnia, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, his lawyers said.

Mental health staff speak to the men through a food slot in the steel doors, or a crack between the cell door and frame, the inmates said.

The visits, which are often brief, are called “drive-bys,” according to the lawsuit.

In Maldonado’s case, the lawsuit said a psychiatrist visited briefly, speaking to him through the door. Maldonado was prescribed an antidepressant, but was also taunted as being weak by others in solitary confinement, who can hear visits from mental health staff. The taunting went on for 10 hours, and worsened his condition, the lawsuit said.

Other plaintiffs who had documented mental health conditions saw insufficient support.

Once in solitary confinement, inmates can progress through phases to access more privileges — such as in-person non-contact visits, reading materials, tablets or TV — but the lawsuit said that “vague, arbitrary criteria” can keep the men from advancing.

Those held at the lowest tier can’t access phones, reading materials, radios, TV or commissary food; they can have only one non-contact visit per month.

At all levels, the men are not allowed to receive alcohol and drug addiction rehabilitation services or anti-violence and behavioral therapy, the lawsuit said. Often, participation in programs like that is necessary for parole, it said.

“No one should be forced to endure these conditions,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, which is one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs. “It is time for the DOC to eliminate practices long recognized as inhumane and unconstitutional, including the unlawful placement of disabled individuals in circumstances that cause life-threatening harm.”


Brooke Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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