Pennsylvania Death-Row Prisoners File Lawsuit Challenging Automatic, Permanent Solitary Confinement

Five prisoners on death row in Pennsylvania have filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the Commonwealth's policy mandating solitary confinement for all condemned prisoners. The five named plaintiffs have been held in solitary confinement between 16 and 27 years each, kept in cells the size of a parking space, allowed out for a maximum of two hours per day for exercise, and denied human contact with family members during prison visits. The prisoners, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Abolitionist Law Center, and three law firms, call these conditions "degrading" and "inhumane" and say the "policy and practice of automatically and permanently placing all death-sentenced prisoners in solitary confinement" is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said Pennsylvania's death-row solitary confinment "until either the prisoner is executed, or dies of natural causes, or has his death sentence overturned is very different from the way solitary confinement is used for all other prisoners. For all other prisoners, you earn your way in and you earn your way out. You serve your punishment, and, if you behave, you can come back to the general population.” While many states still keep death-row prisoners in solitary confinement, that practice is changing. At least eight states have recently allowed death-row prisoners more time outside their cells, including Arizona, which changed its policy in 2017 in response to a similar lawsuit. According to the Pennsylvania suit, however, about 80% of those currently on death row have been held in solitary confinement for more than ten years. The United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners prohibits solitary confinement for periods longer than 15 days. One of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit who has been held in solitary confinement for 21 years "describe[d] his experience as ‘psychological torture,’ where prisoners are ‘treated like animals’ and forced to ‘depend on everybody for everything.'" The lawsuit says "[h]e feels ‘trapped in [his] cell’ – and his ‘mind is like a popcorn machine.’” Pennsylvania's death-row conditions were challenged in 1980, but upheld by a federal court. “In the intervening time, there has been a sea change in the scientific understanding of solitary confinement and increasing recognition by the courts that this crosses constitutional boundaries when it is prolonged,” said Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center. Just last year, a federal court ordered Pennsylvania to end its practice of keeping prisoners in solitary confinement even after their death sentences had been vacated, until they were formally resentenced or released. The retrial or resentencing process often took many years and, in some cases, took decades.

(Maryam Saleh, PENNSYLVANIA KEEPS ALL DEATH-ROW INMATES IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT. THE ACLU CALLS THAT UNCONSTITUTIONAL., The Intercept, January 25, 2018; Samantha Melamed, Is life in solitary inhumane? Lawsuit seeks end to 'death row' in Pennsylvania, The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 25, 2018.) Read the lawsuit, Reid v. Wetzel. See Death Row.