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Mental health concerns prompt lawsuit to end indefinite solitary confinement in Pennsylvania

  • By Brooke Schultz, Associated Press/Report for America
FILE PHOTO: A corrections officer walks down a hallway in a building at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 13, 2017, in Camp Hill, Pa.

 Marc Levy / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: A corrections officer walks down a hallway in a building at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 13, 2017, in Camp Hill, Pa.

Arguing that solitary confinement worsens mental health crises and violates Constitutional rights, six people incarcerated at prisons throughout Pennsylvania filed a federal class action lawsuit Monday seeking to end indefinite use of the practice.

Lawyers for the six plaintiffs say it is the first case of its kind to challenge indefinite solitary confinement and the use of solitary confinement for anyone with a mental health diagnosis. Lawyers are also seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the plaintiffs.

A similar suit was filed in October 2023, with incarcerated people at the Department of Corrections’ State Correctional Institution at Fayette arguing that the solitary confinement practices there worsened and created mental health crises based on secret evidence.

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

In Pennsylvania, legislation seeking to reform the practice and protect vulnerable populations has been introduced. A state House of Representatives judiciary committee hearing Tuesday is expected to focus on the use of it.

The federal suit filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against the state Department of Corrections argues that people incarcerated have suffered from increased mental health struggles. Some have been in solitary confinement for up to 12 years consecutively. The six inmates are incarcerated at six different facilities.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections declined comment, saying the agency does not comment on litigation.
Lawyers say the state Department of Corrections is violating the constitutional rights of those incarcerated and is discriminatory by punishing people for symptoms of mental illness.

In solitary, people are confined to their cell for a majority of the day, with limited time for visitation or to leave their cell. If they do leave their cells, they are often restrained. They have limited access to hot water for showering. Fluorescent lights are on in their cells constantly, making it difficult to sleep. The environment is loud, with slamming steel doors and screaming of people having mental health crises.

The complaint alleges that mental health visits are not private, are conducted through the food slot in the steel doors and only last seconds.

Many of the plaintiffs have harmed themselves or attempted suicide while in solitary confinement, according to the complaint.

Khalil Hammond, a 35-year-old plaintiff, has spent 12 years in solitary. He is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. Hammond has a history of mental illness, which has worsened in confinement. He has attempted suicide eight times, according to the complaint.

He is unable to participate in programming to become eligible for parole and has not been able to connect often with his family. He is not able to marry his fiancé while in solitary.

“Solitary confinement is killing us. If you didn’t have mental health issues before going in, you do once you’re in the hole,” he said in a statement. “Imagine being locked in a cage for years and years without ever knowing when you’ll get out.”

Malika Henderson, 29, has been in solitary confinement for 22 months consecutively. She is incarcerated at State Correctional Institution at Muncy. She’s spent about six years cumulatively in solitary confinement.

After her grandmother died in February and she was unable to attend funeral services virtually, she attempted suicide, the complaint states.

“Being in solitary confinement away from your loved ones and family is devastating,” she said in a statement. “I’m suffering but I know with this lawsuit I’m not just fighting for me, I’m fighting for the thousands of men and women who are in solitary just like me and who need to get out.”

Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, one of the law firms involved in the case, called it a historic filing.

“Ending solitary confinement is necessary on grounds of humanity and as a matter of public health,” Holbrook said in a statement. “The damage and devastation incarcerated people experience in solitary confinement has long-term and widespread consequences impacting individuals, families, and the communities those individuals return home to.”

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