Feds say Pa. prisons misuse solitary confinement

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HARRISBURG – A new report by the U.S. Justice Department concluded the Pennsylvania prison system has employed solitary confinement too often for inmates who exhibit mental illness or have intellectual disabilities.


The report, in the form of a 28-page letter sent Monday to Gov. Tom Corbett and prison system staff, said the state Department of Corrections has made some improvement in recent months. But federal officials insisted that much more needs to be done.


“Now is the time to put a stop to these harmful solitary confinement practices and to meaningfully improve the mental health services PDOC provides,” concluded the letter from the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh.


The Justice Department found that over a recent one-year period more than 1,000 prisoners deemed to have mental health problems had been in solitary confinement for at least three months, and nearly 250 for a year or more. Pennsylvania state prisons house just more than 50,000 inmates.


Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said Tuesday the report does not fully reflect changes the prison system has already made, but he acknowledged the challenge of dealing with some 10,000 men and women with a range of mental illness.


“How long it takes to make major changes in a system of this size, it is what it is, when you do it the right way and when you train staff,” Wetzel said.


The federal study found that the state’s use of solitary often causes or exacerbates mental illness, noting that more than 70 percent of its suicide attempts occur in solitary confinement units. Prisoners with severe mental illness were more than twice as likely as others to end up in solitary.


Pennsylvania’s use of solitary confinement violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and its treatment of mentally ill or intellectually disabled prisoners runs afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal government said.


The report said the total number of inmates in solitary deemed to have severe mental illness or intellectual disability was about 115, but the real number is higher because the state undercounts those subpopulations, the Justice Department said.


The federal government described conditions as “dehumanizing and cruel,” listing examples such as uncleaned feces on walls, denial of bedding material or clothes and verbal abuse from guards.


“Some prisoners alleged that officers had encouraged them to kill themselves,” the report said, describing one inmate who tied a bedsheet to a vent and stood on a toilet as if to commit suicide. “According to the prisoner, the officers told him that they ‘wanted to see his feet dangling,’ and chanted, ‘1 … 2 … 3 … kill yourself,’ repeatedly.”


Wetzel said his agency followed up on issues with particular inmates but was unsure if anyone has been disciplined as a result. He said individual abuses were not reflective of the wider system or staff.


“When you have this many staff and this many inmates, no one in their right mind, sitting in this position, would say, ‘No way this ever happened,”’ Wetzel said.


Full body restraints are overused, adding to the problem, the Justice Department said, noting their own consultants said they should rarely be required for seven hours. There were 260 uses of full body restraints in a recent 18-month period in Pennsylvania, the report said, and almost three-quarters lasted at least seven hours and about one in six lasted more than 12 hours.


“Corrections officers routinely use full-body restraints for far longer than is needed to avoid harm,” the Justice Department said. “Instead, they often appear interested in using the restraints as a means to discipline prisoners by causing discomfort or pain.”


Wetzel said the report listed “a big splash number” that must be viewed in the context of the prison system’s size.


The state prisons’ mental health staff is too small and does not coordinate well with each other, their record-keeping has been poor and the views of mental health professionals are often ignored, the report said.


“Some mental health staff members we interviewed expressed frustration and resentment at the lack of respect shown to them by security staff members,” the Justice Department letter said. “They complained about the extent to which security staff members feel at liberty to ignore their recommendations.”


Wetzel said that in some cases, that is a valid point. He said the agency has already begun reducing the number of interactions between prisoners and mental health staff that occur through a cell door, and that the state has increased funding for prison mental health services.


Both sides indicate the next step was for the Justice Department and Corrections Department to discuss the findings. The letter said the federal government hoped to “fashion an agreement” that would “effectively address our shared concerns.”


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