Pennsylvania to phase out solitary confinement for prisoners with mental illness

prison cell with toilet and cot
News from Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and a coalition of disability advocates announced a settlement January 6, requiring the state to improve conditions for prisoners with mental illness in its 26 state correctional institutions.

The settlement stems from a lawsuit filed in March 2013, by the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, accusing the state of being deliberately indifferent to the mental health needs of its incarcerated population.

Shortly thereafter, the Department of Justice released a scathing report of one of the state’s most notorious institutions, the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Cresson. In the report, it accused the DOC of allowing prisoners with “serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities to simply languish, decompensate, and harm themselves in solitary confinement for months or years on end under harsh conditions in violation of the Constitution.”

At the time, the state warehoused more than 800 people with mental illness in so-called Restrictive Housing Units, often referred to as the “hole,” where they were held more than 23 hours per day.

Under the terms of the settlement, the state has until mid-2016 to fully end the use of solitary confinement for prisoners with mental illness, according to an article in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. Instead, they will be sent to Diversionary Treatment Units, where they will receive mental health treatment and a minimum of 20 hours per week outside the cell.

Prisoners still in the Residential Housing Units will receive annual mental health evaluations, regardless of their diagnosis upon entry.

“We are extremely pleased with the settlement. It guarantees that inmates with serious mental illness in our state will be free of the horrific conditions of the RHU and will receive appropriate mental health treatment and other services,” said Peri Jude Radecic, CEO of DRNPA, in a news release. “Now they will be able to maintain their mental stability, take advantage of parole-eligibility programming, and serve their sentences in a way that does not punish them merely for having a serious mental illness.”

In addition, 1,000 DOC employees must undergo 32 hours of crisis intervention courses, according to the Post-Gazette.

Attorneys from the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Covington & Burling LLP, and Kairys Rudovsky Messing & Feinberg LLP assisted the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of this Galaxy website, are part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and members of the National Disability Rights Network.