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Groups Sue to Stop Indefinite Solitary Confinement in Pennsylvania

Multiple legal groups on Monday filed a lawsuit to protect Pennsylvanians from being thrown in solitary for extended periods of time, or if they have mental illness.

Shaun Versey / Flickr

Several legal groups filed a federal class action suit today to prohibit the state of Pennsylvania from using indefinite solitary confinement or placing anyone with mental illness in isolation units.

“Plaintiffs seek to end the prolonged, never-ending cycle of torture of incarcerated individuals in solitary confinement units in the DOC,” the complaint says.

Attorneys for the Abolitionist Law Center, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and firm Dechert LLP also asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to order the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide due process protections for people who will be or are already in solitary confinement and to award damages to those with mental illness who have been placed in solitary confinement, as well asthose who have been subjected to long-term solitary confinement. 

The suit says the DOC has various names for its solitary confinement units, but the conditions are generally the same: long-term, often indefinite isolation. Many do not know how, if, or when they can return to the general population. 

“I live in my bathroom, which doubles as a torture chamber, but often feels like a casket,” Khalil Hammond, one of the named plaintiffs, said in an audio recording shared with The Appeal. Hammond says he has been in solitary confinement for the last dozen years. 

The lawsuit filed today is the most recent attack on Pennsylvania’s notorious use of solitary confinement. Last year, the same law firms filed an amended complaint challenging the constitutionality of so-called Security Threat Group Management Units, where people are held indefinitely in solitary confinement based on evidence they are not allowed to see and allegations they are not allowed to respond to. 

The Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow on solitary confinement, featuring testimony from survivors of solitary confinement and other experts on the practice, according to the Abolitionist Law Center. 

The new complaint alleges people held in the state’s solitary confinement units are, generally, confined to their cells for at least 21 hours a day. On the rare occasions they’re permitted to leave their cells, they’re first strip-searched. According to the lawsuit, they are then typically locked in an empty cage for “recreation,” handcuffed to a table, or permitted to bathe inside a shower cubicle. There were 1,900 people in restricted housing, according to January’s DOC Monthly Population report.

Numerous studies and countless testimonies from survivors of solitary confinement have demonstrated that long-term isolation has catastrophic consequences, particularly for people with mental illness. 

In Pennsylvania, long-term isolation has led to “individuals refusing to leave their cells, declining medical treatment, consuming foreign objects, overdosing on pills, covering themselves with feces, eating their own feces, head banging, cutting themselves, injuring themselves, and suicide attempts,” the complaint says. The plaintiffs say that prison staff often ignore these behaviors or punish them—sometimes with more time in solitary confinement. 

Department of Corrections data shows that, from 2012 through 2022, more than 35 percent of suicide attempts and over 40 percent of deaths by suicide occurred in solitary confinement units, even though those areas house only about 5 percent of the prison population, according to the suit. 

The suit says that each of the named plaintiffs in the suit has received at least one mental health diagnosis and attempted suicide at least once while in solitary confinement. 

Hammond, for example, has attempted suicide eight times and engaged in self-harm more than 100 times during his time in solitary, according to the complaint.

“There was times when my conditions of confinement affected me so greatly that I attempted to take my own life and was hospitalized for it,” he said in the recording shared with The Appeal. “Solitary confinement is tortuous and is suffocating to me.”

Hammond said sleep is nearly impossible.

“I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in many years due to constant loud banging, arguing, and other mentally ill inmates screaming, crying, or talking to themselves,” he said. “It doesn’t help that the lights are on 24/7 or that staff shine additional light in our faces every 15-minute round conducted.”

For the last approximately six years, Antoine Walker, another plaintiff, has been held in solitary confinement, where he has attempted suicide six times and engaged in self-harm four times, according to the complaint. The suit also says plaintiff Malika Henderson has been in solitary confinement for a total of approximately six years and attempted suicide more than ten times. 

The suit states that Henderson has been in solitary confinement continuously for the last 17 months. On some occasions, she says she has been allowed to go to a room with, at most, four other women. The suit alleges each person is locked in a cage the size of a phone booth. The women are provided coloring exercises, do arts and crafts, watch cartoons or movies, or have books read to them. On the weekends, she is confined to her cell 24 hours a day, according to the complaint. Last month, she says she attempted suicide after she was not allowed to attend her grandmother’s funeral via videoconference. 

Another person, Muwsa Green, was held in solitary confinement continuously from 2009 to 2015, according to the complaint. In October, he says he was sent back to solitary confinement, where he remains. The suit alleges he is not allowed to make phone calls, have contact visits, or possess a tablet, radio, or television. In December, at a prison administrative hearing, he says the DOC denied his requests for a mental health evaluation and release from solitary. 

Throughout Green’s time in solitary confinement, he has attempted suicide approximately eight times and engaged in self-harm more than twenty times, according to the suit. 

The complaint says that the DOC implemented some changes to one of its solitary confinement units, the Restricted Housing Unit, in January. The complaint says those who have been in the unit for more than 30 days must be offered three hours of out-of-cell time daily, including one hour of “exercise.” 

“I’ve heard that in some places that’s just amounting to an hour and a half in the rec cage, twice a day,” the Abolitionist Law Center’s Grote told The Appeal. “It seems like an effort to do the least amount possible that will give them some grounds for having a better defense in litigation while just maintaining the current system.” 

If the lawsuit prevails, it could provide a lifeline to people held in solitary confinement. Hammond hopes the lawsuit will help him return to the general population, where he can participate in programs and further his education. While in solitary, he says he has heard voices and seen “figures of pure evil that I’m told weren’t real.”

“I don’t like to admit it, but I’m not the same as I used to be,” said Hammond. “The circumstances are sucking the life out of me.”