An investigation by the Department of Justice found that a Pennsylvania state prison had been unconstitutionally holding inmates with serious mental illness in solitary confinement for months or years at a time. The practice, which has been deemed torture, cruel and unusual, and worse than being held hostage in Iran, involves holding prisoners in isolation for 23 hours a day in a small, often windowless cell with a steel door. When prisoners are let out of the cell for showers at least 3 times a week, they are taken to another small, isolated space where they are sometimes locked for extended periods of time.
While the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections now plans to close the offending facility, The State Correctional Institution at Cresson, the Department of Justice concluded there is reason to believe the practice could be state-wide and has expanded its investigation. DOJ explains in a statement:
In addition to finding that Cresson routinely resorts to locking prisoners with serious mental illness in their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, for months or even years at a time, the department also found that Cresson often denies these prisoners basic necessities and subjects them to harsh and punitive conditions, including excessive uses of force. The department concluded that Cresson’s misuse of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness leads to serious harms, including mental decompensation, clinical depression, psychosis, self-mutilation, and suicide.
The department also found that Cresson came to rely on solitary confinement as a means of warehousing many of its prisoners with serious mental illness because of deficiencies relating to its mental health program. Those systemic deficiencies include a disorganized and fragmented mental health program, marginalization of mental health staff, and disciplinary procedures that result in the punishment of disability-related behaviors and the placement of actively psychotic prisoners into harsh solitary confinement. The department also found an oversight system that does not analyze suicides and other critical data.
“We found that Cresson often permitted its 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,” said Roy L. Austin Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “These practices have serious public safety consequences because many of these individuals are returned to the community.”
The findings reflect a nationwide epidemic of warehousing mentally ill individuals who should be receiving treatment in bloated U.S. prisons. And data show that growth in the prison population has tracked a decline in the number of Americans institutionalized at mental health hospitals.
What is particularly noteworthy about the Department of Justice’s findings is its determination that the confinement of the mentally ill violates not only the Americans with Disabilities Act, but also the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. While a handful of courts have deemed solitary confinement an Eighth Amendment violation, most lawsuits have resulted in settlement, and the Justice Department does not appear to have taken a prominent position on this issue before. Because the practice remains rampant, particularly as applied to the mentally ill and to children as young as 13, the Federal Bureau of Prisons initiated an investigation into the practice earlier this year.