Over 100 Pennsylvania Prisoners are Held in Solitary Confinement — With No End in Sight
Russell Maroon Shoatz says that for 22 years straight he couldn’t sleep for more than three or four hours a night. The restricted housing unit where he lived — a solitary confinement cell, in common parlance — was smaller than most horse stalls, perpetually lit, and often cold during Pennsylvania’s long winters. Another Pennsylvania prisoner, Andre Jacobs, developed a reputation as a whistleblower for reporting correctional officers who abused prisoners; he reportedly spent 17 years straight in isolation. And Daniel Delker, who killed a prison guard in 1973, has been in solitary ever since. When he went in “the hole,” as it’s known, Richard Nixon was president.
Holding a prisoner in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days is a violation of the United Nation’s “Nelson Mandela Rules” for the treatment of prisoners. But in Pennsylvania, people continue to languish in isolation for years — in some cases, with no end in sight. In 2004, the state created what is called a “restricted release list” (RRL) of prisoners who would be kept in solitary indefinitely, pending release approved by the DOC secretary, in writing.
John Wetzel was named secretary in December 2010, and has developed a reputation as a reformer. In 2016, he appeared on CBS News’ 60 Minutes to trumpet the strides his state was making. “More now than [at] any time in the history of our country, we have the right and left agreeing that we’ve, frankly, screwed up the corrections system for 30 years and it’s time to do something different,’’ he said. “It really starts with understanding that a human being’s value isn’t diminished by being incarcerated.’’
But his track record on solitary confinement tells a more complicated story, as illustrated by the restricted release list. A DOC spokeswoman said that 115 people are currently on the RRL — 30 more than there were in 2010.
Pennsylvania DOC policy says prisoners are placed on the RRL for violent behavior against staff or fellow prisoners, including sexual abuse; escape attempts; and posing a “threat to the orderly operation of a facility,” by joining a gang, for instance. There is little transparency on specifics, though. The ACLU of Pennsylvania was ready to take the department to court because officials refused to disclose the RRL list, but the organization stopped short of litigation when DOC finally provided a list of the prisoner’s names last April. Yet the reasons the prisoners were on the list were redacted.
To learn more about who those prisoners were and why they were on the RRL, researchers with the ACLU-PA corresponded with 68 prisoners on the list last summer. Sixty-six of them reported that they had been in solitary for more than a year, 15 for over a decade.
The researchers asked the prisoners why they thought they were placed on the RRL. The answers varied, but common responses included physical altercations with staff or other prisoners, and attempted escapes. One man said, to his understanding, he was in solitary because he was taken off his “mental health medication” upon transfer to a new prison, and told staff he wanted some time apart from other prisoners; he had been in isolation for four-and-a-half years.
Russell Shoatz spent 10 years on the RRL, with prison officials reviewing his placement every 30 to 90 days. But the review committee didn’t give him a detailed explanation for why he couldn’t live among other prisoners until 2012, when he was informed he was a flight risk.
Shoatz, a former Black Panther who was convicted of first-degree murder of a police officer in 1970, was sentenced to life without parole. He successfully escaped from prison twice during his early years of incarceration, landing in solitary for two years after the second escape. But his decades-long stint in solitary didn’t begin until after he began organizing fellow prisoners with life sentences. In 1982, he joined the now-defunct Pennsylvania Association of Lifers, a group of prisoners who worked with their family members to lobby legislators for a law that would eliminate life without parole. A year after he joined, membership numbers swelled from 12 to nearly 110 and his peers appointed Shoatz interim president. On the night of his appointment, prison officials swiftly put him back in the hole. He stayed there for over 30 years, 22 of which were consecutive.
Represented by the Abolitionist Law Center and two other firms, Shoatz filed a lawsuit against the DOC in 2013, arguing that his conditions amounted to a violation of his constitutional protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and that he had not been granted due process to end his isolation. Ultimately, he was moved to the general population a year after the suit was filed, and in 2016 reached a $99,000 settlement with the DOC the week before his trial was scheduled to begin.
“Mr. Shoatz was famous within the Pennsylvania system, so I do think that played into why he was placed into solitary confinement,” said Amy Fettig, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Shoatz wrote political essays, often incisive critiques of mass incarceration, which were published from behind bars. His ultimate removal from solitary may also have been related to his celebrity: His case received national press and organizers across the country advocated on his behalf. “But a lot of people get lost there,” Fettig said.
Fettig points to the cruel irony that many of the symptoms that people in long-term isolation exhibit — anger, paranoia, anxiety — lead to behavior that keeps them there. “Solitary confinement is allegedly used to control behavior in the institution, and in fact, it causes that behavior. It’s this Kafkaesque situation that people get placed into,” she told The Appeal.
Pennsylvania prisoners on the RRL are not the only ones kept in long-term isolation. “I’ve known people in there for 10 years or longer who were just never put on the restricted release list,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center.
“Solitary confinement is allegedly used to control behavior in the institution, and in fact, it causes that behavior.”
Of the 49 states plus the Virgin Islands that responded to a 2015 Yale Law School survey, Pennsylvania ranked thirteenth based on its percentage of prisoners held in solitary — defined by the researchers as confined to a cell for at least 22 hours a day — for 15 consecutive days or longer. But that’s still 1,716 people. Of those, 190 prisoners had been held in solitary for six years or longer. Fifteen states had zero people held in isolation this long.
Amy Worden, press secretary for the PA DOC, declined to directly address the department’s use of long-term solitary confinement, but wrote in an email that, “The DOC is actively implementing the American Correctional Association’s guidelines,” which since 2016 suggest that the ‘classification committee’ or staff review the status of inmates in solitary every seven days for the first 60 days, and at least every 30 days thereafter.
There have been other notable reforms in Pennsylvania, spurred by litigation. In 2013, the Disability Rights Network filed a federal lawsuit against the DOC for its treatment of mentally ill prisoners. Two years later, in a courtsettlement between the two parties, the state agreed to improve conditions for the prisoners on its mental health roster held in segregated housing. The settlement required that prisoners with serious mental illness be allowed at least 20 hours a week out of their cells, regardless of whether they are in solitary or in the residential treatment unit — a sort of in-house psychiatric hospital. And prisoners who aren’t classified as seriously mentally ill upon placement in solitary must be evaluated annually, at a minimum, for psychological deterioration. If a doctor deems it necessary, the prisoner would be moved to the residential treatment unit. A recent assessment by a court monitor determined that the DOC is in compliance with these stipulations, and that monitoring is no longer necessary, Andrew Favini, a staff attorney at the Disability Rights Network told The Appeal.
In a written statement, a DOC spokeswoman said that in partnership with BetaGov, a consulting project for government agencies out of New York University, the department has implemented over 100 pilot projects since 2015 to reduce the violence and misconduct that leads to sanctions such as solitary confinement. These programs range “from the use of aromatherapy and yoga to the introduction of therapy dogs,” and 600 prisoners have been trained to be peer mediators, said Worden. The prisons have also started to implement sanctions that are more consistent and less harsh, following a model known as “Swift, Certain, and Fair” punishment. The goal, she said, is to reduce violence and also the use of solitary. Two trial studies showed that this strategy reduced minor infractions; however, in one study, the test group had more serious infractions than the control group.
But other states have gone further. Since September, prisoners in Colorado who commit serious violations are not isolated for more than 15 days, and are then given therapy or anger management classes, if necessary. Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, told Frontline last spring that between 2007 and 2013, he reduced the number of people in solitary confinement from roughly 1,500 people to between 130 and 150 at any given time. In Maine, solitary policies were overhauled in 2011 under the leadership of then-Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who later held the same post in New York. Reforms included the increased use of alternative sanctions, such as limiting work opportunities, for all but the most serious infractions. And now, holding a prisoner in solitary for longer than 72 hours requires the commissioner’s personal approval. The state slashed the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement in half over just 18 months.
Grote and his colleagues, along with other civil rights lawyers, would like Pennsylvania to join these states in making more dramatic reforms to solitary confinement. Wetzel “has this image as a reformer,” Grote said. “But a lot of his positions are quite safe, a lot of his reform-y type statements are hollow pieties.”
The Abolitionist Law Center has sued the Pennsylvania DOC on behalf of individual prisoners — with at least one success in addition to Shoatz’s case, and several suits pending. Last month, the Center joined the ACLU and several other firms to file a class action lawsuit challenging the mandatory isolation of Pennsylvania’s 156 prisoners with death sentences.
“The long-term solitary litigation has been piecemeal,” Grote said. “There are not as many lawyers willing to represent the people that we represent.” Despite reforms in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, Grote is not convinced the department will continue to make changes without outside pressure. “The changes were made when they saw the writing on the wall. In other words, they were pushed kicking and screaming.”