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.