Lawsuit says mentally ill prisoners in Pa. face ‘Dickensian nightmare’

philadelphia prison
Rikard Larma/Metro.

Advocacy nonprofit the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit in federal court yesterday claiming the state Department of Correction’s treatment of mentally ill inmates is unconstitutional and ultimately results in “a Dickensian nightmare” in which prisoners’ symptoms are exacerbated, then punished with still more jail time.

At the center of the suit is the state DOC’s alleged use of Restricted Housing Units to segregate mentally ill prisoners from the general population for long periods of time.

The complaint claims mentally ill inmates are kept in “extremely small” RHU cells for up to 24 hours a day.

The isolation bars prisoners from attending religious services or participating in educational or rehabilitative programs, which are not only therapeutic, but necessary in order for the inmate to be eligible for parole.

The suit claims that prisoners with mental illnesses in RHUs “on average, serve much longer sentences than other prisoners.”

“This is a vile and inhumane way to treat people with mental illness,” attorney for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania Robert Meek said in a statement.

“As one judge put it, solitary confinement for a person with mental illness is like an airless room for an asthmatic. Pennsylvania should give these prisoners beds in units designed to help people with mental illness, not devastate them.”

The suit claims the isolation can gravely exacerbate symptoms of prisoners’ mental illness, including “refusing to leave their cells, declining medical treatment, sleeplessness, hallucinations, paranoia, covering themselves with feces, head banging, injuring themselves and prison staff and suicide.”

Those symptoms are often regarded by prison officials as rule infractions and punished with more RHU time.

“The result is a Dickensian nightmare in which many prisoners, because of their mental illness, are trapped in an endless cycle of isolation and punishment, further deterioration of their mental illness, deprivation of adequate mental health treatment and inability to qualify for parole,” the complaint reads.

The suit is seeking an immediate injunction compelling the state Department of Corrections to provide prisoners with “constitutionally adequate mental health care.”

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections declined comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

 

 

Conditions of confinement

 

The suit describes RHUs as tiny, sparsely furnished concrete cells “filled with the smell of feces” whose steel doors have only a slot for food to be passed through.

The lights are often turned on around the clock, and prisoners are allowed to leave only one hour a day each weekday to exercise, often in a small, outdoor cage.

The only mental health treatment many isolated inmates receive are “drive by” visits from staffers who speak to them through the food slot, stripping away all medical privacy.

Isolated prisoners must eat every meal inside the cells, can rarely receive visitors and have highly restricted access to phones, reading materials and radios.

 

By the numbers

 
>> 800 inmates with serious mental illnesses were confined to RHUs in Pennsylvania prisons as of Dec. 10, 2012.

>> As of December 2012, the state DOC had only 141 beds available for those mentally ill prisoners.

>> 60 of those beds were inexplicably empty as of three months ago, even with the space shortage.

>> 22% of Pennsylvania prisoners have serious mental illnesses, overall, but they account for a disproportionate 33% of the population in state RHUs.

>> The cells in which RHU prisoners are locked are as small as 80 square feet.

>> RHU prisoners are permitted only 3 showers each week.

>> RHU prisoners are allowed out of their cells just one hour each weekday to exercise, often in small outdoor cages.

 

Profile of a prisoner

 

The suit offers several examples of mentally ill prisoners who have allegedly suffered due to state DOC policies. Below is the story of one inmate, referred to in the suit as Prisoner #1:

>> Prisoner #1 was admitted to the DOC in 2004 with a severe delusional disorder, but denied he had mental illness and refused medication.

>> He received disabilities services through a Special Needs Unit, but was frequently moved to solitary confinement for conduct symptomatic of his disorder – like threatening staffers he believed were badmouthing his family – that was instead treated as a disciplinary problem.

>> No health staff assisted Prisoner #1 in asserting his behavior resulted from his mental illness and his disabilities were not taken into account when punishment was handed down for his alleged infractions.

>> Prisoner #1 was on at least two occasions placed in short-term Psychiatric Observation Cells after expressing suicidal intentions.

>> Due to his adjustment difficulties, Prisoner #1 was in May 2010 transferred to a Special Needs Assessment Unit at Waymart State Correctional Institute, where his delusional beliefs were noted.

>> Prisoner #1 was in March 2011 transferred to SCI-Cresson. Despite the record of his delusions, he was again disciplined for behavior related to his mental illness by being placed in solitary confinement. He continued to express suicidal thoughts.

>> Prisoner #1 hanged himself in the prison’s RHU two months later.


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