Archive

Feds say Pa. prisons misuse solitary confinement | TribLIVE.com
Pennsylvania

Feds say Pa. prisons misuse solitary confinement

The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — A new report by the Justice Department concluded that the Pennsylvania prison system has employed solitary confinement too often for inmates who exhibit mental illness or have intellectual disabilities.

The report, in the form of a 28-page letter sent on Monday to Gov. Tom Corbett and prison system staff, said the state Department of Corrections has made some improvement in recent months. But federal officials insisted that much more needs to be done.

“Now is the time to put a stop to these harmful solitary confinement practices and to meaningfully improve the mental health services PDOC provides,” concluded the letter from the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh.

The Justice Department found that over a recent one-year period more than 1,000 prisoners deemed to have mental health problems had been in solitary confinement for at least three months, and nearly 250 for a year or more. Pennsylvania state prisons house just over 50,000 inmates.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said on Tuesday that the report does not fully reflect changes the prison system has made, but he acknowledged the challenge of dealing with 10,000 men and women with a range of mental illness.

“How long it takes to make major changes in a system of this size, it is what it is, when you do it the right way and when you train staff,” Wetzel said.

The federal study found that the state’s use of solitary often causes or exacerbates mental illness, noting that more than 70 percent of its suicide attempts occur in solitary confinement units. Prisoners with severe mental illness were more than twice as likely as others to end up in solitary.

Pennsylvania’s use of solitary confinement violates the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and its treatment of mentally ill or intellectually disabled prisoners runs afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal government said.

The report said the total number of inmates in solitary deemed to have severe mental illness or intellectual disability was about 115, but the real number is higher because the state undercounts those subpopulations, the Justice Department said.

The federal government described conditions as “dehumanizing and cruel,” listing examples such as uncleaned feces on walls, denial of bedding material or clothes and verbal abuse from guards.

“Some prisoners alleged that officers had encouraged them to kill themselves,” the report said, describing one inmate who tied a bedsheet to a vent and stood on a toilet as if to commit suicide. “According to the prisoner, the officers told him that they ‘wanted to see his feet dangling,’ and chanted, ‘1 … 2 … 3 … kill yourself,’ repeatedly.”

Wetzel said his agency followed up on issues with particular inmates but was unsure if anyone has been disciplined as a result.


TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.