When T. Montana Bell arrived at SCI Fayette, a Pennsylvania state prison, he says he stepped off the bus and announced that he was going to kill himself. And, according to a legal complaint filed Friday in federal court, a prison official told him to do it.
According to the lawsuit—filed by multiple civil rights groups against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) and others—Bell says he attempted suicide several times that night.
Although DOC had identified Bell as a person with a mental illness, officials transferred him in November 2021 to an indefinite solitary confinement unit at SCI Fayette called the Security Threat Group Management Unit (STGMU). The suit states Bell had previously been told that he’d been recommended for a unit where he would receive counseling. Instead, he was locked up alone.
During his almost two years in the STGMU, Bell says he attempted suicide at least ten times.
Bell’s experience is just one of the harrowing accounts detailed in an amended complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by the Abolitionist Law Center, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firm Dechert LLP. The plaintiffs seek a meaningful, transparent way out of solitary for everyone currently in the STGMU—and for anyone sent from the STGMU to a different solitary unit.
Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, Deputy Director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, said the DOC should shut the unit down.
“There’s not an element of how the unit is run or conceived that is operating by constitutional standards,” they told The Appeal. “When you have something that to its bare fundamental building blocks is unconstitutional, there’s no way to improve the unit.”
The lawsuit began almost a year ago when Bell and other men incarcerated in the unit filed the case without attorneys in a hand-written pro se complaint. The law firms joined the case later.
Solitary confinement “deteriorated me into a shell of who I used to be,” Bell said in a press release.
“We filed this lawsuit because we are suffering immensely and believe no one should experience this,” he said. “This is torture in its highest form, and it must end now.”
The DOC declined to answer questions emailed by The Appeal, stating that it could not comment on pending litigation.
Per the complaint, the STGMU is supposed to house “groups of individuals who have been identified as a possible threat to the security, safety, and/or operation of the facility.” The state refers to such people as a Security Threat Group (STG). Some plaintiffs stated they don’t know why they were sent to the unit. The DOC does not allow people to see evidence—if any—against them or respond to accusations, according to the complaint.
“The policy governing the STGMU has always been secret, as has the protocol, rationale, and evidentiary basis for how the DOC determines somebody is a member of an STG,” the complaint reads.
The lawsuit states that people in the STGMU are trapped in cells that measure about 80 square feet for at least 22 hours a day. Lights are on at all times. Guards slide food through a small slot in the steel cell doors. On weekdays, imprisoned people get one hour per day to exercise in an outdoor cage.
Prisoners in the STGMU are allegedly not allowed to participate in religious services, therapeutic programs, or educational groups or activities—a ban that can negatively impact their chances at parole.
The plaintiffs say the cells typically have steel and concrete beds, thin mattresses without pillows, combination sink-toilets, and small desks and chairs. Guards strip-search and handcuff people on the rare occasions people are permitted to leave their cells.
The complaint also says a person can be held in the STGMU indefinitely—and it can seem impossible to leave.
The suit stated that those on the highest tier—or “phase”—of discipline cannot access phones, radio, television, commissary, or reading material. Bell says the DOC kept him at that stage for 18 consecutive months. The plaintiffs allege that arbitrary rules and the whims of staff govern a person’s progress from one phase to another.
“Phase changes can be based on almost anything at all without any concrete benchmarks for advancing through or being set back in the program,” reads the complaint.
As people move from one stage to another, they gain access to more essential items, including reading materials and tablet computers.
The complaint says that if a person fails the program, they’re sent to another solitary confinement unit. The suit alleges that many plaintiffs were housed in other solitary confinement units before and after their stints in STGMU.
The conditions have predictably devastating consequences. The suit alleges that people in the unit self-harm, attempt suicide, and smear feces on themselves and their cells.
The plaintiffs say that even those with no history of mental illness before entering the STGMU developed severe psychological problems due to the unit’s extreme isolation. However, the lawsuit says therapeutic services are scant. Mental health staff allegedly speak with people for just a few seconds, often through cracks or food slots in the cell doors.
Before prison officials sent plaintiff Angel Maldonado to the STGMU, he says he had been in other solitary confinement units for more than a year but had no history of mental health issues. Within months of arriving at the STGMU in 2022, he began to punch walls and spelled out in his blood, “Kill me, I’m ready to go.”
“The STGMU was draconian,” Maldonado said in a press release. “I’m a strong person, but it broke me down.”
Through his cell door, Maldonado says he told a prison psychiatrist that he was suicidal. After the psychiatrist left, other incarcerated people on the unit allegedly screamed at Maldonado for 10 hours, telling him he was weak and broken and should kill himself.
Less than six months later, he attempted suicide.