Justice Department expands investigation of abuses of mentally ill prisoners placed in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania prisons

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

Hundreds of prisoners with serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities have been inappropriately held in extreme solitary confinement at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Cresson, where the inmates were not only denied treatment but were subjected to extreme sensory deprivation and physical and verbal abuse by prison staff, according to the Department of Justice.

“At Cresson, prisoners with serious mental illness are often subjected to a toxic combination of conditions that include: prolonged isolation, harsh housing conditions, punitive behavior modification plans, and excessive use of force. These conditions, intended to control these prisoners’ behavior, serve only to exacerbate their mental illness,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez in a letter dated May 31, 2013.

From January 2010 through March 2012, 125 mentally ill inmates were held for three months or more in solitary confinement and 27 inmates were held for a year or more in isolation. Prisoners in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day or more in a small 100 square foot cell, many of which do not have windows or receive natural light. Justice Department officials who inspected Cresson observed that “the units often reek of urine and feces”.

The tough conditions and prolonged isolation, combined with the lack of treatment, have worsened the mental state of the vulnerable inmates and inflicted “physical and psychological harms, such as, such as psychosis, trauma, severe depression, serious self-injury, or suicide”. Fourteen of the 17 (or 82%) documented suicide attempts at Cresson took place in isolation units.

The Justice Department determined that Cresson’s practice violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”, and the American Disabilities Act.

Although state officials have decided to close the Cresson prison on June 30, 2013, the Justice Department announced the expansion of its investigation into the inappropriate use of isolation on inmates with serious mental health problems and disabilities at other Pennsylvania correctional facilities.

“We remain concerned about the [Pennsylvania Department of Corrections] policies and practices that allowed the violation of federal law to occur,” Perez wrote. “Indeed, in the course of our investigation, we reviewed information suggesting that other PDOC facilities may inappropriately use prolonged isolation…on prisoners with serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities.”

Perez urged Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and his staff to continue their cooperation with investigators and to remedy the violations cited by the Justice Department.

In his letter, Perez called attention to the “system-wide deficiencies” that resulted in Cresson’s practice of placing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement. Those deficiencies include the lack of proper mental health beds and treatment facilities, inadequate staffing of mental health professionals, and the belief held by prison officials that unintended misbehavior stemming from an inmate’s deteriorating mental state ought to be “punished rather than treated“.

The Justice Department’s expert consultant expressed concern at the prison staff’s “hostility” towards mentally ill inmates.

“Staff routinely respond to the prisoner engaging in behaviors associated with serious mental illness (such as shouting, throwing feces, or banging his head against the wall) by further restricting or even eliminating whatever minimal amounts of therapeutic…out-of-cell time a prisoner has,” according to Perez’s letter. “The system actually withholds treatment from the most ill inmates…On its face, this mental health program is set up backwards: sicker inmates should get the most intensive treatment”.

Pennsylvania prison officials were notified of the Justice Department’s investigation on Dec. 1, 2011. Federal investigators and expert consultants in mental health and corrections security conducted an on-site inspection of the Cresson facility between March 19 – 22, 2012.

Other disturbing findings of mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement documented in Justice Department’s letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett include:

  • “frequent, unnecessary, and excessive use of force” against inmates;
  • the misuse of full body restraint to purposefully “discipline or punish prisoners” some of whom were held in restraint for 10.5 hours at a time without access to toilets, and correctional officers were known to have used additional force – such as tasering – on an inmate immobilized by the restraints;
  • withholding toilet paper from prisoners;
  • “forcing the prisoner to sleep cement slabs without a mattress”;
  • “denying the prisoner access to warm food and instead giving him nothing but “food loaf” [a bland mixture of vegetables, meat, and grains] to eat” and guards have been known to routinely spit in prisoners’ food or throw their food on the floor;
  • “denying access to reading materials”, television, or radio;
  • “denying the prisoner access to the caged, exercise pens”;
  • “denying the prisoner access to showers”;
  • “restricting or eliminating the prisoner’s already limited ability to make phone calls or engage in non-contact visits with loved ones or friends…the only human touch prisoners usually experience is when they are placed in handcuffs or restraints”;
  • taunting prisoners and encouraging them to commit suicide by telling them to “go ahead and hang it up”.


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